Up in smoke.
That's what happened to an application to open a medical marijuana dispensary when the Town Planning and Zoning Commission voted unanimously Tuesday that the outlet is not a permitted use in a designed commercial district at 222 Post Road.
The application to open the dispensary, which would have been the first under the state's recently approved medical marijuana legislation was filed by CT Wellness Centers, which has an office on Unquowa Road.
And voting to deny the initial application, which triggered opposition in the neighborhood nearby the proposed storefront location, the TPZ then voted to deny a second compliance application for a similar dispensary facility just down the road in a medical office building at 400 Post Road filed by Robert Schulten, a resident of the Southport section of town.
"I think a lot of really good points were raised about the location," David Lipton, the principal of CT Wellness Centers, said after the meeting. "I think the town will figure out down the road how they will handle medical marijuana facilities."
The vote doesn't mean, however, that Lipton has given up on the idea of a medical marijuana dispenary.
Lipton, a Westport resident whose business is a health-services management company, said he looking at alternate locations in other communities because for him, the dispensary is a way to provide people with another alternative for medical treatment. It was an idea that a friend, who suffers from seizures, suggested just as the state was poised to legalize medical marijuana. "I decided to investigate and I realize that I could help people," Lipton said in an interview with the Fairfield Citizen prior to the commission's vote. "That I could open up a dispensary that would be safe and secure, and be compassionate to the patients."
State law requires that anyone who wants to open a medical marijuana dispensary must first receive local zoning approval before applying to the state for a permit. There is a long list of state requirements for dispensaries, including that there be a licensed pharmacist as well as security regulations for the sites. The regulations were adopted in August of this year, following approval of medical marijuana use in Connecticut by the state legislature in 2012.
"I have to really believe in it to go into something like this, with the neighborhood against me ... It's for the patients, that's why we're doing this," Lipton said.
"This is not about the efficacy of medical marijuana," TPZ Commissioner Matthew Wagner said. "It's trying to put a square peg in a round hole ... it's not a permitted use."
Wagner said a dispensary will not "harmonize with the neighborhood," will cause traffic and public safety problems and most likely lower surrounding property values.
"I'm hoping the state revisits this and comes up with a workable plan," Commissioner Richard Jacobs said, adding that he also hopes the TPZ will do some long-term planning of its own regarding where a medical marijuana facility might be located in Fairfield. "The state needs to step up and do their job. They didn't come with a full plan."
Commissioner Patricia Jacobson, a nurse, said she has seen the positive effects medical marijuana can have on certain patients, but as a planner she said the town must first decide how it wants to handle dispensaries.
Another commission member, Gerald Alessi, focused on the lack of a traffic study for the dispensary application, and the unknowns regarding the number of patients that a outlet in Fairfield would be serving. He also expressed concern about the students using two nearby bus stops, and the potential that a dispensary might draw criminals to the area.
Alessi also contended that banks won't deal with dispensaries because marijuana use and sale is still a violation of federal law, meaning it will be a cash-only business. During an earlier TPZ hearing on the application, Lipton said he did have a bank for his enterprise, but declined to name it. He did, however, say it would not be a cash-only business.
Lipton said while he may move on to another municipality with his plan to open a dispensary, he would be willing to work with the commission to develop regulations for Fairfield.
He was a bit taken aback by the vociferous opposition on the second night of public hearings on his application. "I'm obviously very naive," he said. "I thought there would never be an issue. There are thousands of pharmacies in the state now providing state-licensed medications" and marijuana is now state-licensed.
He also said he didn't realize there are school bus stops in the area. "I apologize to the neighbors about that," he said.
As for suggestions that such dispensaries might be more suitably located in medical office buildings, Lipton said he tried that. "No landlord in town would lease to me," he said. When he couldn't find that type of space, Lipton turned to the storefront in a small shopping center on the Post Road and realized that location lent itself to better security and safety for patients.
Lipton has received zoning approval in West Haven to open a marijuana farm there. He said he decided to try and operate both a dispensary and the production end after researching medical marijuana facilities in other states.
"They told me it's better to be able to control the quality," he said.
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