EAST HADDAM – Plans by a well-known local businessman and town official to open a retail marijuana shop were put on hold on Tuesday after a the town’s First Selectman, residents and members of the Planning and Zoning Commission questioned the appropriateness of the proposed site or any location in town at a public hearing.
Robert Casner, chairman of the town’s Economic Development Commission, proposes to open the retail shop in a building that now houses a package store and an architect’s office, adjacent to a popular cafe at the busy Town Street intersection.
Casner submitted his application to open the shop in late October before the town’s Planning and Zoning Commission voted to impose a moratorium on marijuana businesses until next June.
“This application was not snuck under the deadline for the moratorium,” said Scott Jezek, Casner’s attorney and an unsuccessful candidate for first selectman in last month’s election. “In fact, it was probably the other way around.”
Noting that the state General Assembly legalized recreational marijuana effective last July 1, Jezek said that town had had plenty of time to pass a moratorium and block the retail business.
“For four months, the commission could have acted. I don’t know if the moratorium was a reaction to my client’s application or not, but there was ample time” for the board to act on a moratorium before it was submitted.
The Zoning Commission voted unanimously on Tuesday to delay any further action on the matter until a January 11 meeting.
The hearing was held to discuss whether to grant Casner a special exception for the shop, which Jezek said the commission was “required” to rubber-stamp because such a designation had already been granted for the adjacent package store.
Jezek called the location “the ideal” place in town because of its proximity to the intersection of routes 82 and 151 – a major traffic hub.
If accepted by the town, Jezek said, Casner still would still need to have his plans approved by the state’s Department of Consumer Protection.
Applicants for a license must first have received local approval for a retail location, Jezek said, and no decisions on licenses are expected until late next year.
On Tuesday, Casner said the that proposed 300-square-foot shop would be built in a vacant space attached to the package store, which has 19 parking spaces.
He bought the property, including a circa-1760 Colonial house that he has renovated, four years ago.
“What I’m trying to do is blend this” shop and property into the “historical feel” of the area, he said. “It’s a way to bring more business to the area and a way to bring more employment to the town.”
Several commission members, including Chairman Crary Brownell, questioned the effect the shop would have on traffic in the well-traveled area.
Richard L. Pettinelli said that questions raised about traffic and emergency services had not yet been addressed by Casner.
Jezek countered that traffic impact is one of the criteria used by the state when considering final approval for such locations.
“Maybe you should look at the statute – how about that?” said Jezek to Pettinelli.
“I did look at the statute,” Pettinelli replied.
Some residents also suggested that the town should exercise its right to ban all marijuana sales by referendum, citing the potential negative impact on youth and the town’s quiet, rural appeal.
Jezek said that Casner’s proposal would not be subject to any potential ban because it was filed before the moratorium was imposed.
Mark Thiede, owner of the Two Wrasslin’ Cats restaurant that abuts the site, said he opposes the shop on several grounds and that the proposal “really pissed me off.”
“I offer a very family-oriented business and I’m totally against this,” he said, noting that his café is often used for events by youth and charitable organizations. “It just doesn’t belong here.”
Jezek had earlier said that the state has laid out specific rules that prohibit marijuana shops from being opened in close proximity to buildings such as schools and hospitals and those used by religious and military veterans’ organizations.
“You can’t see any of those uses that may be regulated from this site,” he said.
Also objecting to the plan at the meeting was First Selectman Irene Haines, who said she was speaking in her official capacity and as a resident.
She ticked off a list of town establishments, events and projects that attract families and that she believes are in conflict with Casner’s proposal, including holiday and “spring-chicks” events at nearby Shagbark Lumber, the town skating pond, the Wolf’s Den camping area and a proposed bike path along Route 82 that would pass by the shop.
Haines said that the bike path is being overseen by the Economic Development Commssion that Casner chairs. Haines also said that the shop is not in keeping with her vision of how to expand the town’s limited commercial base.
“We’re a very community-driven area that we are trying to promote,” she said. “We’re healthy and yet we want to think about putting in this retail establishment that sells a terrible drug next to another place that sells a terrible drug?” – a reference to the package store. “We have a beautiful town here and we don’t need this kind of establishment.”
Haines also attended the Nov. 9 meeting when the Planning and Zoning Commission acknowledged receiving Casner’s application, and then adopted the moratorium.
Jezek, defeated by Haines in the election a week earlier, had asked for Haines’ removal from that meeting, saying her role as the town’s top official and her stance against the shop could unfairly sway the views of commission members.
Of Haines’ remarks Tuesday, Jezek said Wednesday that “her presence there is inappropriate and I don’t want to say anything more than that right now.”
Haines on Wednesday defended her comments, saying that she has a right to step in “when the town’s welfare is threatened,” and noting that her views are reflected in letters she received from residents in her capacity as the town’s state representative.
“The economic development work being done in town is of great interest to me as the town’s official,” Haines told CT Examiner, adding that she voted against legalizing marijuana on the state level, she said: “To put a pot shop near where families gather, where they shop, see Santa or get baby chicks at Easter and recreate is just not an appropriate place.”
Because state regulations allow only a single marijuana shop in towns with a population of less than 25,000, Jezek said, East Haddam would have to more than double in size before a second shop could open.
“It’s probably going to be one site for East Haddam in any of our lifetimes,” he said.
By statute, zoning commissioners must act on Casner’s application within 65 days of Tuesday’s public hearing.
Toni McCabe, executive director of East Haddam Youth & Family Services and a vocal opponent of the shop, said at the hearing that the delay should enable the town to explore many issues raised at the meeting.
“Maybe it’s not a benefit to the town,” as Casner stated, McCabe said. “We need to have a real conversation in a transparent way and come to a decision we can all live with.”
Photo: Proposed retail marijuana shop would be located in the building at the left
Steve Jensen was a journalist for 13 years with the Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer of Manchester before becoming a Communications Director for the State of Connecticut. Jensen covers politics and law enforcement for CT Examiner. T: 860 661-6404