Bridgeport restricts legalized pot to ‘adult entertainment’ areas – CTPost

BRIDGEPORT — Despite efforts by state lawmakers to de-criminalize and de-stigmatize the recreational use of marijuana, Connecticut’s largest city is, for now, treating pot like porn and similarly tucking away the new industry in the few neighborhoods set aside for adult entertainment.

“It’s absolutely asinine,” local state Rep. Steven Stafstrom said Thursday after learning of the decision. “These should be in our major commercial corridors.”

Stafstrom, a Democrat, is co-chairman of the Connecticut General Assembly’s Judiciary Committee and helped spearhead passage in June of legislation legalizing cannabis for adults age 21 and up. He and other proponents have touted the economic benefits of a thriving marijuana industry that rivals neighboring states’.

“Bridgeport would be allowed up to five retail establishments – one per every 25,000 residents,” Stafstrom explained Thursday. “The city will receive a three percent tax on all sales at the five establishments.”

There could be an unlimited number of growers, he said.

But in a last-minute decision Monday, the Planning and Zoning Commission before passing a comprehensive rewrite of Bridgeport’s entire zoning code, amended that proposal to restrict cannabis cultivators and retailers to the same heavily-industrialized areas where strip clubs and adult stores are forced to do business.

The new code takes effect this coming Jan. 1. Bridgeport technically does not have an “adult business” zone, but such establishments can currently only open in heavy industrial zones. Some strip clubs do exist on more commercial blocks like Fairfield Avenue in Stafstrom’s district, but those were grandfathered in when the regulations were toughened about a decade ago.

Before Monday’s change, the draft regulations crafted by the city’s Office of Planning and Economic Development (OPED) treated pot dispensaries as a “controlled use” and the same as liquor stores. Applicants would have had to satisfy the same list of detailed criteria, including being 750 feet from schools, day cares and houses of worship, and not negatively impacting the surrounding neighborhood or future development.

And growers under OPED’s proposal would have been able to operate anywhere indoor agriculture will be allowed.

It was Zoning Commission member Robert Filotei, a Republican and a constituent of Stafstrom’s, who prompted the revision. He said he did not want to “kill” the cannabis business but felt it premature to pass local regulations allowing it.

“Our neighboring communities have all pretty much put moratoriums on (marijuana sales) or not addressed the issue yet,” Filotei told his colleagues during Monday’s teleconference. “We’re opening up our arms to the world to come to Bridgeport, if and when it happens.”

Recreational-use sales are expected to begin by the end of 2022 after state regulators iron-out some additional details and then award licenses through a lottery system.

Filotei cited past strong neighborhood opposition to applications for medical marijuana dispensaries that came before the commission. But during two public hearings on the citywide zoning overhaul last month no one raised that topic, with dozens of speakers instead focused on a completely different issue — preserving the 420 acre Remington Woods from future development.

His fellow commissioners Monday sought to at least temporarily appease Filotei’s concerns until they could have a more in-depth future discussion.

“What would be the harm in restricting it right now to the adult entertainment area?” asked Zoning Commission Chairman Mel Riley, who is also a Republican.

“I don’t have a problem with that,” Filotei said.

The change did not receive push-back from OPED staff. That department’s deputy director, William Coleman, advised commission members that in the coming weeks he would be able to share with them the five locations where, under OPED’s original approach to legalized pot, dispensaries would likely be able to open.

“We are certainly willing to revisit the topic in more detail than perhaps tonight,” Coleman said.

And municipal attorney Russell Liskov emphasized commission members could subsequently always vote to amend the restrictions approved Monday based on any new information.

Stafstrom on Thursday said he had previously met with OPED a few weeks ago over some of the proposed zoning code alterations and “was fine with” that department’s handling of legalized cannabis.

“I think it encouraged economic opportunity for the city in this burgeoning industry and I am extremely disappointed to learn the zoning commission monkeyed with it,” he said.

Stafstrom noted how Bridgeport’s approach to the legalized cannabis market is in direct contrast to Hartford’s, where officials are considering encouraging such businesses to move in downtown.

“We should be doing the same thing,” Stafstrom said. “We should not be tucking these away, out of sight. I certainly understand there are some folks who are just against the idea of legal cannabis. But that is not the vast majority of the public (and) the net effect is discouraging tax base growth and the development of new jobs and businesses in the city.”

And, Stafstrom added, growing marijuana will be “a great adaptive reuse of some of the old industrial buildings in Bridgeport.”

Liskov defended the zoning officials’ decision.

“They recognize the legality of it (cannabis) and they’re going to be careful with the initial locations,” he said Thursday. “You’re going from something that was illegal to legal. The smart way to handle it is to handle it incrementally. Then once you get a handle on it, you can figure out if you’re doing it right or need to liberalize more.”

And, he added, Bridgeport at least is not imposing a moratorium like other municipalities.

The city’s policy-makers and community leaders in general have a history of trying to keep legalized pot out of the city.

After initially welcoming the medical marijuana industry and approving a grower’s application, City Hall in 2012 under then-Mayor Bill Finch and city officials succumbed to public pressure and rejected proposals for three dispensaries. The grower never got the necessary state authorization to open.

Then in 2014, the Planning and Zoning Commission, with Finch’s backing, adopted a temporary moratorium on medical pot with the goal of developing a strategy for future proposals. But that planning never occurred.

In more recent years some Bridgeport faith leaders and, in 2019 now-ex Police Chief Armando Perez, publicly opposed legalizing pot.

“I do believe this (marijuana) is a gateway drug” that leads users to try and to abuse worse substances, Perez had claimed in 2019. “Many of my friends smoked marijuana. A lot of those same friends are dead.”

Coleman in comments to the zoning commission Monday referenced the inevitability of legalized cannabis and why OPED had approached it like regulating liquor sales.

“We can’t stop the wheels from turning,” he said.

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