After 10 years of being shunned by the legal marijuana industry, Bridgeport will now welcome it

BRIDGEPORT — Connecticut’s largest municipality has backtracked and is now installing the “welcome” sign for legalized cannabis businesses.

“The real push of this from a land use perspective was to expand the potential footprint – moving from seclusion in industrial areas to more friendly commercial corridors and downtown,” William Coleman, Deputy Director of Economic Development, said Thursday after the committee’s action Wednesday night.

“I strongly believe this is one of the major decisions made in the city of Bridgeport over the past decade, there’s no question about that,” said Zoning Commission member Robert Filotei, who voted on the vote. one of the few “noes” at Wednesday’s meeting.

Meanwhile, a developer, Adam Wood, president of the Connecticut Cannabis Chamber of Commerce, applauded the zoning commission’s decision.

Wood, former chief of staff to former Bridgeport mayor Bill Finch, said the city stands to benefit from Connecticut’s efforts to ensure that some licensed retailers are low-income contractors from high-income areas. unemployment or high rates of drug-related convictions.

“Bridgeport is a community that has been disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs,” Wood said. “I hope this will help the city attract new businesses and more actively benefit from the state’s social equity program.”

Officials in Democratic-dominated Bridgeport, starting with Finch, initially pushed back on medical marijuana operations after they were legalized in Connecticut in 2012. But in June 2021, when Connecticut lawmakers had legalized the recreational pot for adults 21 and older, City Hall, now led by Mayor Joe Ganim, was preparing to enact this change, along with promised sales tax revenue and other planned economic benefits.

It is estimated that a 3% municipal tax levied on gross sales will add, at a minimum, more than $1 million a year to the typically cash-strapped and heavily taxed Bridgeport budget.

Already working on Zone Bridgeport, a comprehensive update of all local land use codes and maps, the city’s planning and economic development department has incorporated the treatment of cannabis dispensaries in the same way as liquor stores, meaning “controlled use”.

But late last year, a few cautious members of the zoning commission before adopting Zone Bridgeport managed to convince their colleagues to abandon that approach and instead treat pot retailers the same as adult entertainment.

Under the amendment passed this week, cannabis dealers must obtain a “location certificate” from the zoning commission similar to businesses that sell or serve alcohol or provide vehicle sales and service. Such a certificate will be renewed every five years to ensure that sellers are responsible and good neighbours.

Unlike city rules for liquor establishments that keep those storefronts 750 feet away from so-called sensitive uses like schools, cannabis retailers can be 500 feet away. Coleman said Thursday that the economic development office had considered increasing that distance at the request of city council members, but was sticking to the 500-foot requirement.

“As you start drawing circles (around possible pot dispensary sites), it started to really pinch where you could locate the industry,” Coleman said.

But, he pointed out, marijuana retailers must, according to the state, operate under “a much higher security threshold that one must pass through to become a customer.

“These are very different industries in how they regulate and how the consumer needs to interact with the industry,” Coleman said.

As the state begins issuing the first licenses, Coleman predicts Bridgeport will begin receiving applications from interested retailers “almost immediately.”

“But it would be a few months before we saw anything formal before the (zoning) commission,” he said.

State Rep. Steven Staffstrom, D-Bridgeport, as co-chair of the Connecticut General Assembly Judiciary Committee, helped lead the passage of legalized pot legislation. Last year, he called the zoning commission’s previous approach “dumb.”

“I’m glad to see they corrected the mistake that was made,” Staffstrom said. “This is certainly a booming new industry that will create significant jobs and economic opportunity, especially in a struggling municipality like Bridgeport. The city should open its arms to this type of economic investment.

Johanna Dorgan is a member of the Democratic zoning commission that backed the revised regulations on Wednesday.

“It’s legal,” Dorgan said. “Those who have not faced the facts, it is time. …I see no reason for it to be placed in areas that people might find “scary”, for lack of a better word.

Filotei, a Republican, was behind the commission’s decision late last year to take a more restrictive approach.

“I’m not sure the city is ready for that,” Filotei said. “I’m not sure the city is ready to handle the amount of activity this is going to bring.”

Filotei also said he was surprised at the lack of opposition during a public hearing.

“I don’t think we had a single person against it,” Filotei said.

But rather than conclude that recreational cannabis has at least been accepted if not embraced by residents — the amended rules had been pending on the committee’s agenda for weeks due to meeting cancellations — Filotei argued that city ​​officials had not done enough to inform the public.

Coleman said he respects Filotei’s point of view, but disagrees. He noted that Zone Bridgeport, which initially included a more welcoming approach to recreational pot, involved months of public education.

Coleman also noted how the zoning commission’s initial decision on legal marijuana late last year sparked “significant community discussion” that he and other economic development staff informed in late April. the city council of the proposed changes adopted Wednesday.

One of the council members who expressed general reservations about cannabis legalization in April — Maria Valle of the East Side — said Thursday she hadn’t checked this week’s zoning agenda. She added that many city officials are distracted by the upcoming primaries for state legislature and other important political positions.

“I, personally, think marijuana leads to other, harder addictions,” Valle said. “I wouldn’t want that in my part of town.”

Filotei expected many to feel that way once individual proposals begin to be submitted to the zoning commission for approval.

“People are going to be outraged,” he said. “They’re going to say, ‘How could you let that happen?’”

Councilman Matthew McCarthy founded The Dope Tax Group, which specializes in accounting for the cannabis industry. McCarthy acknowledged Thursday that some dispensary proposals could face opposition.

But, he said, the dispensaries are well-run, secure, and patrons “walk in and out,” spending “at most 10 minutes” buying items to relieve pain or anxiety or to improve sleep.

“People have this idea of ​​a dispensary as a bad thing – it’s this stigma around what they called ‘medicine,’” McCarthy said. “It’s the most useful medicine, if you will, out there.”

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