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Hearings Begin On Drive-Through Window Service For Eateries

Published: August 11, 2018 at 12:00 am


Planning and Zoning Commission (P&Z) members on August 2 began a public hearing on the P&Z's regulatory proposal to broaden the zoning regulations to allow drive-through window service as a feature at eateries in shopping centers.

Currently, the P&Z allows drive-through window service at banks and pharmacies, but not at eateries.

The only exceptions to that prohibition are at 75 Church Hill Road, where developer Sunrise Church Hill Road LLC is constructing a 12,170-square-foot retail center, which will include a Starbucks Coffee shop with a drive-through window, and at Botsford Drive-In at 282 South Main Street, where that eatery's drive-through window was in operation before town zoning went into effect in 1958 and thus is allowed to continue.

Notably, in 2016, the developer of 75 Church Hill Road sought and received P&Z zoning rule changes to have drive-through window service there via the creation of a new overlay zone known as the Exit 10 Commercial Design District (X10-CDD), within which such a use is allowed, and provided certain physical requirements are met.

The appeal of drive-through service there is heightened by the site's proximity to the Exit 10 interchange of heavily traveled Interstate 84.

Under the proposal being considered by the P&Z, shopping centers in B-2 (Business) zones that are at least ten acres in size and also have their street access controlled by a traffic signal would be allowed to have drive-through window service for businesses, including eateries, provided that a range of conditions are met.

The proposal discussed by the P&Z on August 2 does not specify the number of drive-throughs that would be allowed at an individual shopping center.

The rules proposal is largely based on the technical standards for a drive-through which had been formulated by Sunrise Church Hill Road LLC, and later approved by the P&Z in conjunction with creation of the X10-CDD zone for 75 Church Hill Road.

There are three locations in town that currently meet the P&Z's definition of "shopping center." They are Sand Hill Plaza at 228 South Main Street, Plaza South at 266-276 South Main Street, and Waterfall Plaza at 255 South Main Street. All three locations are in Botsford.

Zoning regulations promulgated by a land use agency, such as the P&Z, are based upon its current members' judgment as to what constitutes a sound set of regulations.

The P&Z promotes the orderly, coordinated development of town and the general welfare and prosperity of its residents, controls and directs the use and development of property by dividing the town into land use zones, and regulates the principal uses and accessory uses permitted within such zones.

In the planning sphere, the P&Z formulates a decennial Town Plan of Conservation and Development, which serves as a conceptual framework for land conservation and development and also regulates the subdivision of land.

In the past, P&Z members had prohibited drive-through window service for eateries to deter fast food restaurants, which typically have drive-throughs, from locating here. P&Z members listed traffic congestion and littering as the drawbacks connected with such development.

A 'Slippery Slope'

At the August 2 P&Z public hearing, George Benson, town planning director, said of the drive-through topic, "This is going to be a long-term discussion, I think." Because the rules under discussion are a P&Z proposal, the application is not subject to the standard deadlines covering the P&Z's action on applications.

P&Z Chairman Donald Mitchell noted that all three local shopping centers where drive-throughs would be allowed are in the South Main Village Design District (SMVDD) overlay zone. Development proposals in that zone are subject to aesthetic review by the Design Advisory Board (DAB). The DAB makes recommendations to the P&Z on the architectural and landscaping aspects of applications.

"We've been talking about this (drive-through issue) for a long time," Mr Mitchell noted.

In February, the P&Z formed a committee to study the concept of allowing drive-through window service at more locations locally.

Only one member of the public spoke on the drive-through issue on August 2. Resident Heidi Winslow, an attorney, was a member of the P&Z for 11 years, resigning from the panel in 2001 after being appointed a judge in Connecticut Superior Court.

Ms Winslow had served as the P&Z's vice chairman for many years.

Ms Winslow said she has a historical perspective on the issue of allowing drive-through window service locally.

In the past, P&Z members opposed allowing drive-throughs at eateries for three basic reasons, she said. They are maintaining the town's character, preventing traffic-related problems, and protecting the viability of established local eateries.

"Drive-through windows, without a doubt, are associated with fast food restaurants," Ms Winslow said. What keeps fast-food restaurants out of town is that drive-through service is not allowed for such eateries, she added.

During the 1990s, the P&Z considered the "appearance" of the town to be an important aspect of the community, she said. P&Z members were especially concerned about the town's appearance in areas where travelers entered Newtown.

Ms Winslow said that when motorists enter Newtown from Bethel on Mount Pleasant Road, "It's like a breath of fresh air... There's trees."

Locating fast food restaurants at the entry points to town is a very attractive proposition for fast food businesses, especially at I-84 interchanges in Newtown, she said.

Ms Winslow added that the traffic flow produced by the presence of multiple vehicular pathways for drive-through window service would pose traffic hazards for motorists.

"Traffic is a major concern," she said.

Ms Winslow noted that any new shopping centers, beyond the existing local shopping centers, would also be likely locations for drive-throughs.

Also, creating drive-throughs would jeopardize the vitality of existing local food-based businesses, she said. "Those existing businesses would be in jeopardy if we want to go in the direction of [allowing] fast food restaurants," she said.

"If we take one step down this 'slippery slope'... then why should it (drive-throughs) be barred from strip malls, why should it be barred from other areas of town?" she asked. "This is the tip of an iceberg," Ms Winslow said of the drive-through window zoning rules proposal.

Why The Change?

Following her remarks, P&Z member Jim Swift said he agrees with Ms Winslow's point of view on the drive-through issue. "I really appreciate her showing up" to comment on the topic, he said.

Mr Swift raised many issues about the presence of drive-through window service at 75 Church Hill Road when plans for that retail center were under P&Z review in 2016.

P&Z member Robert Mulholland asked why the drive-through issue has again surfaced for P&Z discussion.

Mr Benson responded, "Shopping centers are having (financial) problems across the country." Mr Benson added that a revised version of the P&Z's regulatory proposal would set a limit on the number of drive-throughs that would be allowed per shopping center.

P&Z member Roy Meadows observed, "The world's changing... Times are changing."

P&Z members are not going to be able to keep everything the way it was in the past, he said.

According to the proposed zoning rules: a bypass lane adjacent to the drive-through lane would be required to prevent traffic congestion on the site and on adjacent streets; drive-through lanes must be 11 feet wide; the access driveways to sites with drive-through windows must be controlled by a traffic signal; and drive-through windows must be located only at the sides or rear of buildings, among many other proposed requirements.

The proposed zoning rules under consideration by the P&Z would only create a regulatory mechanism through which applicants could seek approval for actual drive-through window service.

P&Z members agreed to resume their discussion on allowing drive-through window service at shopping centers at their September 6 session.

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