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'Is that worth it?': Norwalk cannabis ordinance raises concerns for lone GOP council member
Hour - 9/21/2022
Sep. 21—NORWALK — From properly labeled packaging to the desire for more than three retailers, officials answered various questions during a town hall meeting Monday on the city's proposed cannabis ordinance.
The hour-long virtual town hall addressed the public's concerns regarding the allowing cannabis retailers in the city, ahead of Tuesday night's public hearing and Common Council Ordinance Committee vote.
The town hall panel was comprised of the city's Community Services Director Lamond Daniels, director of Planning and Zoning Steve Kleppin, deputy commissioner of the state Department of Consumer Protection Andréa Comer and executive director of the state Commission on Women, Children, Seniors, Equity, and Opportunity Steven Hernández.
If the ordinance is approved, a 3 percent sales tax on cannabis products will go back to the city with plans to invest the money in the community, Daniels said. The funds will go toward community enrichments programs such as education and training as well as programs designed to decrease the recidivism rate and help individuals previously incarcerated on drug charges reintegrate.
"The way we see it here in Norwalk, this new funding stream enables us to determine the most effective ways to implement realistic initiatives while also managing expectations and measure the benefits while directing these new resources," Daniels said. "We don't know what this new tax revenue is going to bring to our city, but what is most important is we want to identify and plan a structure so that when this does happen we have a comprehensive way to support our community."
In February, the Common Council approved a nine-month ban on marijuana sales while officials established rules and regulations for the industry. If approved by the Ordinance Committee, the ordinance will move to a vote at the Common Council's next meeting.
The cannabis ordinance previously moved to a public hearing by a 6-1 vote. The only person who voted against it was Bryan Meek, who doesn't consider the 3 percent revenue worth the potential risks of readily jumping into a new legislation.
"I fail to see that as a reason to assume all the risks associated," Meek said. "Not that there are any reliable revenue forecasts, but if we only sold $5 billion worth of dope, it could pay for some of the treatment plant upgrades we desperately need. But like this pipe dream, more likely we won't even see $1 million in yearly revenue or about 0.25 percent of our entire budget. Is that worth it?"
Meek said not much would change his opinion of the ordinance, but he believes "the money should be put into a lockbox solely for fixing and cleaning existing infrastructure, including but not limited to wastewater treatment, trash collection and street sweeping."
During the town hall, residents were able to submit questions ahead of the meeting as well as share questions in the virtual gathering's chat box. About 10 questions were submitted beforehand, with some repeated questions relating to public cannabis consumption events and a request for the rationale behind limiting the number of retailers allowed in the city.
In the proposed cannabis ordinance, three cannabis retailers will be permitted in Norwalk, despite there being no state-imposed cap on the number of marijuana establishments. The state statute had originally set a limit of one cannabis retailer for every 25,000 residents in a municipality.
The legislation was later amended to remove the retailer limit, Kleppin said.
"In discussion with council members, it was thought the best avenue to move forward was to keep it at three for now. We talked about a lower number at one time, but we felt that was a good number," Kleppin said during the meeting. "One concern was if you have less than three, say they opened up at the same time, would you have this rush of activity at these couple of locations and overwhelm the sites in terms of what they could handle in terms of traffic and parking?"
To accommodate a potential influx of traffic to the cannabis locations, the ordinance requires the businesses to be in commercial corridors, have a larger land parcel requirement than other retailers and use police presence to help stem the flow of traffic in anticipation of the initial influx of customers to the area, Kleppin said.
"We're starting at half an acre larger with the thinking being if it's on a larger piece of land then that site would hold more parking. If it's part of a larger plaza, there's more readily available parking versus a standalone small shop," Kleppin said. "In conversations we had with peer communities in Massachusetts, they found that after an establishment was open for a while the novelty wore off and they kind of resumed a normal flow of traffic they'd see in similar establishments such as a pharmacy."
Kleppin reiterated that restrictions would be placed on where cannabis retailers could be located to ensure the products were not sold near "sensitive" locations, such as schools, churches and rehab facilities.
As deputy commissioner of the Department of Consumer Protection, Comer responded to a public question regarding identification of cannabis products and assured residents the items, particularly edibles, are clearly marked as containing cannabis and warn against consumption by children.
"I think there is a little bit of misconception. The policies and procedures, because it is complex and a multi-page document, it may not be out in the public square to the extent we would like, but there definitely will be some guardrails up so you're not picking it up and thinking it's something that it's not," Comer said.
Comer and Hernandez emphasized the potential positives cannabis sales can bring to the city, including more control over drug sales.
"We weren't having these discussions when this product was in the illicit market. No one cared if they were selling drugs or cannabis, potentially laced cannabis, in front of a church or a school," Hernandez said. "The public can ask these questions, can create limitations, but also opportunities at the same time."
Abigail Brone can be reached at email@example.com.
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