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Former Montville marijuana purveyor pins hopes on East Lyme

East Lyme — The former owner of a medical marijuana dispensary in Montville has put in a proposal to allow recreational marijuana dispensaries in the town's light industrial zone.

The zoning application came from resident Laurie Zrenda, former owner and manager of the Thames Valley Relief medical marijuana dispensary in Montville who wants to open a recreational pot shop in East Lyme. But first, regulations have to change to specifically add recreational dispensaries to the list of permitted uses in the zone.

The proposed change — known as a text amendment — passed its first hurdle this week, with the unanimous endorsement of the Planning Commission. Members found the proposal consistent with the town's Plan of Conservation and Development, which outlines community priorities and is updated every 10 years to help guide local land use decisions.

Zrenda's application goes next to the Zoning Commission. A public hearing will be held Oct. 7.

The move comes after Gov. Ned Lamont in June signed into law a voluminous bill legalizing recreational marijuana for adults that gives cities and towns discretion in regulating the drug. It also authorizes municipalities to reap a 3% tax from pot sales within their borders.

The light industrial zone generally encompasses an area between Interstate 95 and West Main Street on either side of the Rocky Neck connector.

Zrenda, reached by phone Wednesday evening, said she has purchased a building within the zone "on a hope and a prayer" she'll win one of the coveted licenses the state will be awarding through a lottery system. She said she chose the location based on what she considers the most appropriate place for a dispensary. "It's not in anybody's neighborhood. It's not near any schools."

Zrenda declined to disclose the address until she consults with her attorney.

A lifelong East Lyme resident, she said she wants to see the 3% sales tax directed into hometown coffers.

If she doesn't win a license from the state, she said she could sell the building or rent it to someone who does secure a license. She noted it's difficult to find landlords willing to rent to business owners whose product is still federally illegal.

Describing the location as a "nice, discreet, out-of-the-way spot," she said she did not want to upset residents by choosing a site in a more visible area, such as downtown Niantic.

"I know it'll be a delicate subject for a lot of people, but the reality is that it's going to be available in retail settings throughout state. People are going to buy it in one town or the other, but they're still going to bring it into East Lyme if they live in East Lyme," she said.

Planning Commission members, in deciding whether or not to recommend the change to the Zoning Commission, acknowledged there are many questions to be answered as the application moves forward.

Director of Planning Gary Goeschel told commission members there are currently retail businesses in the zone. "From that perspective, I don't see where this would be inconsistent," he said.

Businesses allowed in the zone without any special review range from manufacturing companies to storage warehouses to dog groomers. Businesses that may be permitted pending a more thorough review run the gamut from brew pubs to hotels to adult use establishments.

Planning Commission Chairman Kirk Scott said his only reservation is that marijuana remains prohibited at the federal level.

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., last month proposed a bill that would treat marijuana much like alcohol or tobacco, allowing it to be taxed and regulated, according to the Associated Press. The news outlet reported President Joe Biden has said he supports decriminalizing the drug but believes the federal prohibition should remain.

Scott acknowledged the issue is being debated in Washington, but said "it's still just talk and it's still illegal federally." He wondered if the divide between national and state policy could open up East Lyme to liability.

"On the other hand, it's pretty much like a package store," he said.

Goeschel noted many communities are dealing with the same issues right now. "We can kind of learn a little bit from our neighbors, but it is a new frontier at least in the Northeast."

Southeastern Connecticut towns are still weighing the decision. Towns including Greenwich, Newtown and Prospect already banned the selling of marijuana.

The new state law since July 1 has allowed for the possession of marijuana — with some limits — in the state. Retail operations here won't be set up for about at least another year.

Municipalities can prohibit cannabis businesses within their town lines. If such businesses are permitted, towns also will be able to regulate the signage and hours. The bill allows only one retailer and one retail grower per 25,000 residents, though that limit could be altered in 2024. And while municipalities can prohibit delivery from their jurisdiction, they cannot prohibit delivery to their jurisdiction. Towns can bill cannabis businesses up to $50,000 for the extra police presence and infrastructure work required for such businesses to open.

One question among commissioners revolved around how the federal ban might affect the town's ability to recoup the 3% tax promised in the new law. But they agreed details like those are outside of their scope.

Member Michelle Williams put it this way: "I don't think it's really our purview to go down that road, even though we're all super curious."

The commission's role is to provide guidance on the ways land is used — now and in the future — to ensure East Lyme's interests and regulations are met, according to the Planning Department.

The language proposed by Zrenda includes several special conditions: locations would be restricted to not less than 2,000 feet from a school, church, playground, hospital, library, another dispensary or anywhere serving alcohol for on-site consumption; hours would be limited from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.; parking requirements would be the same for those in place for retail stores; and sales would be confined to the building with no consumption allowed on site.

This is not the first time the issue of marijuana has come before the town's land use commissions. In early 2019, East Lyme zoning regulations were expanded to include medical marijuana facilities within Commercial A zones along West Main Street, Boston Post Road and Flanders Road. Black Point Road, which also is located in the Commercial A zone, was excluded.

Supporters of the regulations at the time said the changes were made to aid the town, should any dispensaries wish to locate here, while opponents worried such changes would act as an invitation to such businesses.

Goeschel said there have not been any formal applications for medical marijuana dispensaries, which were heavily regulated by the state.

e.regan@theday.com

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