Buds on a cannabis plant in a grow room at Curaleaf’s cannabis production facility in Simsbury, Connecticut on Aug. 24, 2022. Julianne Varacchi / Connecticut Public

The stage is set for Long Wharf Theater’s conversion into the city’s second legal cannabis destination — and for New Haven to fill up to its legal brim with budding businesses by as soon as the end of the summer.

That’s the outcome of Thursday night’s meeting of the City Plan Commission. The commissioners gave the green light to a Massachusetts-based cannabis company hoping to set up shop along the New Haven Food Terminal. They also approved special permits for two other applicants looking to follow suit across the city.

Two more proposals for weed-themed establishments are pending further review in a special meeting by the board scheduled to take place next Wednesday. So in all, New Haven is reviewing plans for five different dispensaries, the maximum number of pot shops that the Board of Alders admitted per a cannabis zoning ordinance passed last year.

Those five projects under review or underway include the now-approved ​“social equity” venture at 222 Sargent Drive. INSA, a ten-year-old cannabis company with 15 establishments across Massachusetts, Ohio, and Florida, is working with Hartford social equity partner Ashley Aldridge to turn the former Long Wharf Theater there into a pit stop for edibles and pre-rolls. Read in detail about that plan in a previous article here.

Representatives of the plan won site plan approval Wednesday night. They also received approval of a special permit that New Haven requires of all cannabis retailers, micro-cultivators, hybrid retailers, food and beverage businesses, product packagers, product manufacturers, and cultivators in order to operate in business and industrial districts.

Joe Pallotti, who owns Lamberti Packing and whose grandfather served as the Food Terminal’s president for two decades, was one of several to speak out in support of the Sargent Drive dispensary.

“I don’t know if over the past five to seven years we’ve heard anything besides EVs [electric vehicles] and cannabis. So you know, from from that standpoint it was a it was a no-brainer,” he said of his support for the project.

Two other applicants also received special permits. Both are also equity joint ventures. That means those dispensaries will be owned and controlled by both a business entity and an individual determined by the state to make under a certain income threshold and have lived for a minimum period of time in an area considered disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs. (Read more about those standards here.)

One special permit was granted to Let’s Grow Hartford LLC, an equity joint venture with intentions to rent a vacant industrial building at 1041 State St. to build out another hybrid dispensary. Their social equity applicant, Janice Fleming Butler, hails from Hartford. They will have to return before the commission for site plan review later on. 

A second special permit went to New Havener Luis Vega — a co-host of Cannabis Corner on the Independent-affiliated WNHH FM radio station — for a planned medical and retail hybrid dispensary at 63 Amity Road. Vega’s project is exempt from site plan review. Once he receives the appropriate building permits, he’ll go from the first Latino hemp farmer in the state to the owner of Nautilus Botanicals, the company he’s started with financial backing from private equity firm Merida Capital Holdings.

“If you do approve everything, my dream will be coming to fruition,” Vega said Thursday. ​“We’re not doing this for a company on another side of the world. We’re making a New Haven resident’s dream come true.” 

A dual site plan and special permit application for a hybrid dispensary at 45 Church St. was postponed to a later July meeting of City Plan. A fifth application from New Haven’s only extant dispensary, Affinity Health and Wellness, was tabled for further review following a heated back and forth about owner Ray Pantalena’s plans to relocate from Whalley to Middletown Avenue.

If all five plans ultimately get the board’s blessings, New Haven will have reached its self-imposed cap of one cannabis retailer for every 20,000 residents to be open at once in the city.

Only one commissioner voted against any of Wednesday night’s pot pitches. Carl Goldfield voted against granting INSA a special permit, stating the application ​“just doesn’t feel right to me — it feels like a large marijuana corporation that’s all over the place joining with an equity applicant that’s not even from New Haven, who doesn’t sound like she’s even going to be involved with the direct operations at the store.”

After Goldfield spoke out against ​“megacorporations” dominating New Haven’s cannabis scene, he subsequently voted in favor of site plan approval for the project after three of his fellow commissioners passed the special permit forward independently of his vote. 

Goldfield joined the rest of the commission in voting unanimously forward the two remaining special permit applicants, hailing Luis Vega’s project in particular as representative of a New Havener directly affected by the criminalization of cannabis taking a leading role in developing his own company with outside financial assistance. (Vega had eight cannabis related convictions set for expungement, according to this article.)

“In contrast to the reservations I expressed about the first equity applicant we had, I’m pleased to hear Mr. Vega is a New Haven resident and he’s gonna be a hands-on operator,” Goldfield remarked.

The most controversial cannabis moment considered Wednesday night came in connection with a request by Ray Pantalena, owner of Whalley Avenue’s hybrid facility Affinity Health and Wellness, to relocate to a former diner at 420 Middletown Ave. in order to grow his store’s footprint and parking options.

“We’ve seen pictures of customers using the product in the parking lot. We don’t want that in this area,” Quinnipiac Meadows Alder Gerald Antunes said, supporting neighbors who complained that Affinity hasn’t done enough to keep patrons from lighting up in the vicinity of the shop.

Pantalena, in turn, said Antunes was probably referring to a ​“New Haven Independent article” featuring a ​“stock photo from another state.” 

“When we saw that we were like, ​‘Oh my god!’ It was not here,” he said of the photo.

Commissioners corrected Pantalena, recalling that the picture (of self-described marijuana afficionado Rick Woods hitting a dispensary-bought joint in his car) had been taken on the first day that Affinity opened up sales to non-medical buyers.

“I don’t think it’s fair to put one guy lighting up in the parking lot on Mr. Pantalena,” Commissioner Goldfield said. ​“If it was a consistent pattern of people getting high in the parking lot I would feel differently, but this was an isolated incident.”

Still, he and his colleagues opted to postpone their vote on the matter until the following week, expressing concerns over numerous protests from the public during the Zoom meeting — some about the site’s proximity to the Friends Center for Children’s upcoming daycare in the area — contrasted with a lack of apparent community support. 

Commissioner Joshua Van Hoesen concluded the night of positive votes with a reflection: ​“It is very interesting that I will walk past two dispensaries on my way to the grocery store now.”

While he supports the growing number of dispensaries, he added, it has ​“been a concern of the neighbors and the neighborhood that ancillary businesses are popping up due to dispensaries. We’ve had a lot of the plazas seemingly choked out by smoke shops instead of other local family oriented businesses. … I’m in support of this based on the presentations. But I do think these are important aspects that the individuals who craft the legislation in which we follow as guidelines should should potentially be aware of and mindful of in the future.”

This story was originally published on July 20, 2023 by New Haven Independent.