NORWALK, Conn. — Zoning regulations to govern cannabis establishments in the city were approved Wednesday by the Norwalk Planning and Zoning Commission, on a six to one vote.
Retail dispensaries can operate near residential spaces, in a final change made Wednesday after a public hearing. The regulations are effective March 1 for retail distributors but it’s likely to take much longer than that for stores to open given the hurdles involved, first the administration’s vetting process and then the special permit application with P&Z, Planning and Zoning Director Steven Kleppin said.
Commissioners also voted to allow drive through windows for retail establishments, after removing that option in a previous meeting.
In 2021, the State legislature legalized recreational cannabis, allowing cities and towns to decide whether they’d permit retail sales and the cultivation of cannabis. Norwalk will collect 3% sales tax on cannabis sales, as provided in State law, and a cannabis trust fund has “the potential to help fund critical initiatives,” Norwalk Chief of Social Services Lamond Daniels has said.
Representatives of two potential retail operators spoke at Wednesday’s public hearing, Kleppin called that “a very, very small sample on the number of individuals that are reaching out to us on a daily basis about locations.”
Fine Fettle, operator of a dispensary in Stamford, is in the final negotiations to lease a space here, Attorney Adam Blank told the Commission.
Blank said he appreciated that Norwalk is moving forward faster than other communities and understood a desire for baby steps, but felt the drafted regulation was a bit too restrictive. The general areas selected for cannabis establishment eligibility made sense but, “I’m willing to bet that if you could come up in your head with 10 locations that you think would be a good spot for this, at least nine of them won’t qualify under your reg.”
Business partners Jocelyn Cerda and Kepal Patel agreed.
Shangri-La Dispensaries spent more than 150 hours looking for suitable Norwalk properties, with three realtors as boots on the ground, but were “barely able to find one or two,” Patel, a Missouri resident, said. Even those properties didn’t meet the drafted regulation as the buildings mixed residential and commercial uses.
Blank said Fine Fettle is poised to move on the defunct used car lot on the corner of New Canaan and Main Avenues. The parcel is centrally located on a main thoroughfare, with a small building and much parking, but not acceptable under the drafted regulation as it didn’t quite meet the half-acre requirement.
The Commission responded to those comments and others by tweaking the draft. Avoiding changing the regulation just for Fine Fettle, the Commission changed it to require a third acre for a retail site instead of the .4-acre Blank had requested. Half an acre was arbitrary anyway, Commissioner Mike Mushak said.
Cannabis retailers are required to be at least a mile from each other.
While the regulation only allows three stores in Norwalk, it’s possible that a municipality can’t legally cap the number of any type of business within the community, Kleppin said. So staff members did mapping exercises to experiment with different distances. Keeping them 1.5 miles apart might inspire a crafty retailer to “cut out probably two thirds of the city” with its location, so one mile was recommended.
As for proximity to residential space, Commissioner Galen Wells pointed out that mixed use buildings sometimes have liquor stores below the apartments. Commissioner Richard Roina countered that a landlord might have a vacant retail space below three established residential tenants, wondering if allowing a cannabis dispensary to open there would count as a constructive eviction in landlord tenant court.
“I don’t see how it really affects them,” Wells said. “A cannabis store right now is a boogeyman. But it’s not going to be a boogeyman and a couple of years.”
The average sale of liquor is $6 but for cannabis it will likely be $100, Mushak said. He’d be much less concerned about cannabis given the high security such numbers will inspire and felt drawing foot traffic would also make the neighborhood safer.
Even though the City’s ordinance limits the places where people can legally smoke cannabis in public, people will do it anyway, Commission Chairman Lou Schulman said.
“There are going to be people who are going to walk out of that cannabis store and light up,” Schulman said. “Granted it comes in lots of different forms. But you know, I grew up with people lighting up and as Richard said, if I have a child and I live in that building, I don’t want my child exposed to that.”
“This is highly regulated, highly regulated. So this isn’t like some street dope, you know, on the corner selling a nickel bag or a dime bag,” Commissioner Jacquen Jordan-Byron said.
Someone drinking their $6 bottle of wine on the stoop is “way more dangerous” than the $100 cannabis customer, Wells said.
Commissioner Hector Pachas said other communities have found that people buy cannabis at the store and go elsewhere to ingest it.
The vote to allow cannabis retail stores near residential spaces passed five to two, with Roina and Schulman voting no.
Schulman voted for the overall regulation. “I have certain objections to this, but I don’t object overall,” he said.
Drive throughs were added back in by consensus, after Mushak observed that many cannabis customers are disabled.
They won’t be allowed in certain areas where the zoning regulations prohibit them, such as the East Norwalk Village District, Kleppin said.
Commissioner Nick Kantor asked how the City would prevent another Chick-fil-A apocalypse, referring to the traffic nightmare that developed on Connecticut Avenue when the poultry purveyor opened on the corner of Rampart Road.
Every application will go through the special permit process, which require traffic studies, Kleppin said.
“There’s only one Chick-fil-A in this area of this state,” Principal Planner Bryan Baker said. “So that kind of generates the significant amount of traffic, whereas if you have three of these cannabis facilities in Norwalk and then Stamford, Danbury, it’s going to kind of split up the traffic.”
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