MERIDEN — The city’s Planning Commission on Wednesday night voted to continue its public hearing on an application for a cannabis dispensary downtown following criticism of its location near two school programs and the issue of a fellow member filing the application on behalf of his son.
Planning Commission member Ross Gulino and his son Biagio Gulino filed an application for a special permit to open a recreational cannabis dispensary at Gulino’s property at 28 W. Main St.
The application was filed prior to a citywide moratorium on cannabis operations that runs from Aug. 17 to Nov. 19. Gulino’s son is behind Blue Leaf LLC, which will operate the business and Ross Gulino owns the building. The moratorium was passed by the City Council.
Because it was filed prior to the moratorium, Gulino’s application does not need to conform to zoning regulations enacted Tuesday by the City Council, according to attorney Dennis Ceneviva, who is representing the Gulinos on the application. He expects the proposal to be treated as any retail use, similar to a package store.
Gulino has recused himself from public discussions surrounding regulating cannabis operations in the city and left the room during Wednesday’s public hearing. City Planner Paul Dickson said that Gulino’s role as a commissioner did not present a conflict of interest because he has recused himself, but would if Gulino was presenting the application before the board. However, Dickson agreed to look into the matter further during the meeting at the request of commissioners.
The public hearing is expected to resume next month.
City Councilor Michael Carabetta, who attended Wednesday’s meeting, opposed the location.
“From the outside looking in we have a Planning Commission member who knew the moratorium was coming up...,” Carabetta said. “Now we’re in the middle of the moratorium and we’re looking into his application. I will be looking into this further with the Ethics Board. I don’t believe anyone on this commission or any other board or commission should be able to apply. We should not be able to make decisions that will net us a profit.”
On Thursday, Ross Gulino called Carabetta's comments "political grandstanding" and said he had the same information on the moratorium at the same time as other city officials. He was also told by Ceneviva, he did nothing wrong, he added
Gulino has said the business is an opportunity for his son, a downtown resident, to gain a foothold in cannabis sales following the state’s legalization of recreational marijuana use on July 1. He told the Record-Journal, the business would provide a catalyst for downtown foot traffic because parking would be at nearby garages. Owners of the Downtown Coffee Shop, Mr. Bentley’s and the Silver City Firearms support the plan as a boost for downtown businesses.
“I’m for it,” said Latisha Martinez, owner of the Silver City Firearms, which is next door to the proposed dispensary. “Economically, it will bring outsiders to our city. We all have concerns with drugs, but we have to consider it’s legal now. Economically, it will bring traffic downtown who will get validation for parking. Medically, a lot of these seniors are utilizing marijuana for health. It’s going to be a learning curve for everyone.”
Martinez commended Ross Gulino, who is her landlord, as someone who’s proven to have the city’s best interests at heart and knows the details of running and starting a business.
“He knows the ins and outs of business,” Martinez said. “Has multiple businesses in town. You have someone whose been in the city for many years.”
But other speakers criticized the location for being too close to the Meriden Public School’s Success Academy for disengaged teens and its transition program for 18 to 21 year olds on the autism spectrum. The programs are housed at 14-16 W. Main St.
Dan Zaborowski, a City Council candidate at the meeting, said he feared that students from these programs would pass the dispensary and witness pot smoking. He and other members of the public suggested that other city sites would be better suited for a dispensary.
Other speakers had fears of increased traffic and double parking. City Council Majority Leader Sonya Jelks didn’t think a cannabis dispensary was the right image for the city’s downtown.
During the meeting Ceneviva and Biagio Gulino sought to assauge fears about the store’s influence, saying products would not be advertised in windows, no consumption would be allowed on the property and there would be personnel in the vestibule to ensure anyone entering is over age 21. They bolstered their argument by saying the police station was right next door.
Ceneviva told the commission and the public that getting the site approved for the use was only a first step. He feels the state is dragging its feet in coming up with its regulations. The last he heard, the state was considering a lottery system that might not get Gulino’s application a second look, Ceneviva said.
Planning Commission Chairman Kevin Curry suggested continuing the public hearing to allow city staff to get answers to the issue surrounding the proximity of the school programs, the fire escape and potential conflicts of interest.