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Zoners review medical marijuana issues as moratorium hits midpoint

Published 7:23 am, Tuesday, April 22, 2014

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  • Westport Town Attorney Ira Bloom, left, with Laurence Bradley, director of the Planning and Zoning Department; Chip Stephens, chairman of the Planning and Zoning Commission, and Jack Whittle, the commission's vice chairman, talk about the prospect of a medical marijuana dispensary in town at a meeting Monday night in Town Hall. Photo: Andrew Brophy / Westport News

    Westport Town Attorney Ira Bloom, left, with Laurence Bradley, director of the Planning and Zoning Department; Chip Stephens, chairman of the Planning and Zoning Commission, and Jack Whittle, the commission's vice chairman, talk about the prospect of a medical marijuana dispensary in town at a meeting Monday night in Town Hall.

    Photo: Andrew Brophy

 

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The most likely spots in Westport for a medical marijuana dispensary -- should town officials decide to allow one -- appear to be along the Post Road from Harvest Commons to the Fairfield border, from the Sherwood Island Connector to Roseville Road and from Kings Highway South to the Norwalk border.

Those stretches of the Post Road have sites that are 1,000 feet from 10 schools, 17 day-care centers/preschools, 14 churches or synagogues, 20 parks, 13 athletic fields, four beaches and 15 town facilities, according to a document and map reviewed by a subcommittee of the Planning and Zoning Commission Monday night in Town Hall.

Laurence Bradley, director of the town's Planning and Zoning Department, also brought maps to the meeting that show areas outside of a 500-foot buffer and a mix of 1,000- and 500-foot buffers. He said potential locations for a medical marijuana dispensary likely would be restricted to commercial zones in Westport.

"I don't have any expectation we're going to allow these in residential zones," he said.

The P&Z's one-year moratorium on permitting an application to be filed to open a medical marijuana dispensary in town expires in October.

While available locations based on the 1,000-foot buffer aren't plentiful, they may be further reduced by future P&Z decisions on which of five zoning districts should allow a medical marijuana dispensary and the parking standards for such a business. Bradley said the P&Z would have to decide whether to allow a medical marijuana dispensary to open under the same parking regulations as a retail store, office building or medical building or whether to set a new standard.

"If you make parking more restrictive than retail, this can't go where retail presently exists unless there is a surplus of parking," Bradley said.

Jack Whittle, the P&Z vice chairman, said a medical marijuana dispensary would require "a more intensive parking standard" because it would be a regional facility. "It would be a county-wide dispensary location at this point," he said. He said the state's General Assembly so far has granted only six licenses for the entire state.

Whittle said obstacles to a pharmacy chain dispensing medical marijuana would be the "cash-only" nature of the business, since banks are refusing to set up accounts for medical marijuana dispensaries, as well as a potential "public relations quandary."

A medical marijuana dispensary has yet to open in the state under the law approved last year, and Town Attorney Ira Bloom said that poses a problem in trying to determine what the local parking-space standard should be. "It's such an unknown. That's part of the dilemma," he said.

Bradley thought the stretch of the Post Road from Harvest Commons to the Fairfield border is the most likely area for a dispensary if Westport officials decide to allow one to open in town.

Ray Rizio, a Fairfield lawyer representing D&B Wellness Center, one of the six businesses granted a state license, attended Monday's meeting and said his clients have been "submarined" in their attempt to open a medical marijuana dispensary in Bridgeport. He said his clients had a proposed location in Bridgeport where retail pharmaceuticals are permitted "as of right" and their proposed medical marijuana dispensary ought to be permitted there "as of right."

"You can't argue medical marijuana is not a pharmaceutical recognized by the state of Connecticut," Rizio said. But, he said, the popular perception confuses medical marijuana with recreational marijuana. "Medical marijuana, if it were the same product with a different name, we wouldn't be having these discussions. It's still no different than a drug, a legal drug," he said.

Stephens and Whittle didn't disagree with Rizio, but Whittle said the subcommittee is concerned about parking, traffic, intensity of use and impact on neighborhoods. "It's not exactly like just another pharmacy in town," Whittle said.

Rizio said the state now permits people with only 11 medical diagnoses to buy medical marijuana, but Bradley said the P&Z has no control over whether the state later expands the availability to others.

Bradley also questioned whether states that now permit sales of recreational marijuana are allowing it to be sold from existing medical marijuana dispensaries.

Bloom said his office or Bradley's office would have to do research to answer that question.

"We're trying to do our due diligence here," Stephens said, referring to the board's timeframe for addressing local regulations before the moratorium expires in October. "This is not a judgment on medical marijuana, recreational marijuana, good or bad. We're just dealing with getting our ducks in line with land use ... We're here to figure out if it's doable here or not and where."

Stephens said he expected more people to attend Monday night's meeting, but Rizio said a crowd would likely appear if an application to open a dispensary were filed.

Bradley agreed. "When we have an actual location, the whole neighborhood will show up," he said.