Monday, April 22, 2024

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Civility Breaks Down at P&Z Medical Marijuana Hearing

By James Lomuscio

Passions over proposed medical marijuana facilities ran so high tonight that Westport’s Planning and Zoning Commission (P&Z) called a 15-minute time out, and when they resumed, a police officer was alongside the podium.

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Westport Police Officer Michael Tomanelli (rear) admonishes the P&Z crowd to maintain decorum. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Photo from Westport Town Television

“Wait your turn. Act appropriately and don’t misbehave,” Officer Michael Tomanelli admonished those in the packed Town Hall auditorium. He added that any physical acts of conduct would result in criminal activity.

Even for the oftentimes contentious P&Z meetings, tonight’s breakdown of decorum was one for the books. It came as the commission heard a third application for a medical marijuana dispensary, this one at 345 Post Road West.

On March 15, the commission heard two other P&Z special permit applications for such medical marijuana facilities, one proposed at the former Bertucci’s Restaurant at 833 Post Road East, the other at what was Blockbuster Video at 1505 Post Road East, now DXL Destination XL Store.

The one proposed at 1505 Post Road East was back on tonight’s docket, too.

While public opposition was overwhelming at the previous meeting, tonight it seemed more inflamed on both sides of the issue.

Proponents, some of whom described their own pain or loved ones suffering from cancer, choreographed such dispensaries as medically needed, safe, secure and highly regulated.

Opponents said such retail facilities would set the infrastructure for recreational marijuana centers as some state officials consider legalizing recreational marijuana to generate tax dollars.

Meanwhile, two new applications are pending for April 19, one at 1460 Post Road East, the other at 1303. The proposed one at 833 Post Road East, which had been on tonight’s agenda but pulled, will be resubmitted at that meeting.

Attorney Amy Souchans, representing FFD LLC seeking a special permit and site plan at 345 Post Road West. highlighted her client’s professional qualifications.

She described COO Richard Carbray as a professor at the University of Connecticut’s (UConn) School of Pharmacy and a member of UConn’s board of trustees. CEO Eric Zachs serves on Hartford Healthcare’s board of directors, she said, and Bernard Sullivan, picked to oversee security, is a member of the Sandy Hook Advisory Committee.

Despite comments that it would be based on a pharmacological, patient care model, many in the crowd were not buying it.

“We have opportunists coming into the community; it’s all about the money,” said Representative Town Meeting (RTM) member Jimmy Izzo.

P&Z Chairman Paul Lebowitz reprimanded him, saying that he should stick to the site plan and to address the P&Z, not the audience, which he polled about visits to CVS and Walgreen’s pharmacies.

“It’s our job as a community to stop this now,” Izzo said to cheers, which led to Lebowitz to calling a 15-minute time out.

Shout outs, booing and interruptions continud despite warnings from Lebowitz and P&Z member Chip Stephens.

“I have never seen anything like this in my entire experience at Town Hall,” Lebowitz said as the meeting resumed. “The rules of engagement are not open outcry. If you are not civil, we will end this.

“It is just reprehensible for you to treat your fellow Westporters this way,” he added.

The crowd seemed better behaved as Michele Carrie Mechanic of 6 Blackberry Lane, stepped to the podium to contest the argument that medical marijuana facilities carry a stigma.

“There is nothing more stigmatizing that being sick,” said Mechanic, who said she suffered from epilepsy, takes FDA-approved medications but thinks the town should be open to the medical marijuana option.  “…My decision is between myself, my epileptologist and my pharmacist.”

Tom Lasersohn, a former Board of Finance member, spoke against approving any medical marijuana facility in town.

“My understanding is that this is illegal under federal law, really illegal,” Lasersohn said. “If that’s the case, I think these applications are incomplete.”

Earlier, several P&Z members and Planning & Zoning Director Mary Young said that FFD’s application was incomplete since it did not have enough parking for a retail facility in a GBDR (general business district residential zone), and that it would require Conservation Department approval for the FFD to hook up to sewers.

“You guys took an oath to the Constitution; certainly you do not want to violate your oath,” Lasersohn said, adding that an approval would violate federal law and make the town liable.

FFD’s proposal was left open until the April 19 meeting, and it was followed by the application at 1505 Post Road East.

Attorney Eric D. Bernheim representing that applicant came out fighting, saying that the planned site is in keeping with the P&Z’s own text amendment 735 approved June 8, which allows no more than two medical marijuana dispensaries in commercial districts.

“If you improperly deny my application and approve two others, you could wind up with more than two,” Bernheim said, adding that a suit could follow.

“My application satisfies all of your special permit regulations. This location satisfies all the regulations.”

Bernheim accused the P&Z was being influenced by public outcry against medical marijuana dispensaries instead of adhering to the requirements of its own text amendment.

His comments drew the ire of Stephens and Lebowitz.

“I’m offended by you threatening to sue the commission; I’m offended by your atitude,” said Stephens.

“Public outcry is not why we would fail a site,” said Lebowitz. “If your location fails, it will be because you did not do your homework.”

The P&Z left the matter open for a decision at a later date.

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