Ridgefield planners will discuss drive-thru food

With the coronavirus changing life and eating and the restaurant business — and with littering a relic from the age of tail fins — is it time for Ridgefield to lift its ban on drive-thru food pickup?

“The argument against drive-thru food service was strongest in the 1970s when littering was rampant,” Attorney Bob Jewel writes in a letter to the Planning and Zoning Commission — which has scheduled a June 9 discussion of his suggestion that town’s drive-thru food ban be reconsidered.

“I remember the debates about allowing drive-thrus when there was a rumor of McDonald’s opening on Route 7. While every kid I knew at Farmingville School was strongly in favor of McDonald’s, the adults were aghast. The main argument was litter,” Jewell recalls.

“These were the days when all cars had eight cylinders, gasoline and paint were still full of lead, moms chain-smoked in the A&P and we had U.S. Ad-Council campaigns with a cliche faux Native American canoeing through trash-clogged rivers with a tear in his eye … For some reason, back then, people loved hurling garbage from the windows of their speeding gas guzzlers.

“Forty-plus years,” Jewell says, “we live in a different world. Some bad-actors still litter, but they are the exception, not the rule. We just know better…”

Jewell’s request that drive-thru food service be allowed has been scheduled for next Tuesday’s Planning and Zoning Commission meeting as “a pre-submission concept discussion” for 896 Ethan Allen Highway — a property on Route 7 a little south of the intersection of Route 35. The property owner potentially interested in making a submission on the Route 7 site is Bob Shoetz of Shoetz Real Estate.

But Jewell says “this request has much broader application and potential benefits.”

Age of virus

In a three-page letter to the commission, Jewell makes the coming of the coronavirus and disease it causes, COVID-19, the focus of his argument for drive-thru food.

“As we are in the midst of a public health crisis that will likely transform our society on an even broader scale than the changes we saw to airline travel after 2001, it seems an appropriate time to re-examine this issue,” he says.

“The main feature of these changes will be the permanent implementation of social distancing. Even if government relaxes rules, it is impossible to envision packed restaurants, movie theaters or hearing rooms ever again,” he says.

“In fact one of the major features of both the current emergency measures and proposed ‘re-opening plans’ is restaurants being for take-out and drive-thru only. With that in mind it seems like an appropriate time to revisit the ban on drive-thru food service under the Ridgefield Zoning Regulations.”

Jewell reviews the history of Ridgefield regulations that allow a “drive through facility, but not permitting food service” — it’s been used by banks and pharmacies — in the village Central Business District (CBD) as well as in the B-1 and B-2 business zones found mostly along parts of Route 7 and Route 35.

“Ridgefield has had drive-thru banking since at least the early 1960s,” Jewell said, and the drive-thru pharmacies began about 15 years ago with the redevelopment of Copps Hill Plaza.

“The new pharmacy location was in a free-standing building, which gave them the opportunity to design a drive-though window for prescription pickup and consultation only,” Jewell writes. “This proposal was supported and approved by this commission based on the health, safety and welfare of pharmacy customers, many of whom were old, ill or injured. In approving this use for the first time, it was decided that accommodating these customers outweighed the historic concerns that limited drive-thrus to banks. It was a wise decision and looks especially brilliant this year.

“Currently, by government order, we are prevented from most of the things we took for granted only 10 weeks ago: going to work, walking into the town hall, going to church, seeing a movie at The Prospector, going out for a meal, etc. Basically anything that involves contact with other humans outside our immediate family is prohibited,” he says.

“Even when these government orders are modified, we will never do any of these things quite the same ever again. Capacities will be limited and there will be an explosion of activities that allow people to experience many of the same things, but at a certain distance. Drive-in theaters are one example and drive-thru restaurants are another. It is time to update our zoning regulations to recognize this change not just for the business owners who are trying to keep restaurants in business during this crisis and into this new age, but for their customers as well.”

After a long series of restaurants — Spanish, Asian, American — have come and gone, this Route 7 building is now being proposed for drive-through food service, to be located in the back.

After a long series of restaurants — Spanish, Asian, American — have come and gone, this Route 7 building is now being proposed for drive-through food service, to be located in the back.

Macklin Reid photo / Hearst Connectictu Media

Restrictions! Conditions!

Jewell endeavors to make the idea attractive to the commissioners, who have an instinct for precise regulation and a long history of concerns about traffic and architectural aesthetics. “We can impose restrictions and conditions,” he says, “including location, architectural review and traffic impact statements that demonstrate the business can be carried out safely and without unreasonable disruption to neighboring properties.”

Jewell proposes that drive-thru be allowed only “in zones where restaurants are already permitted” and even suggests a “pilot program” in the B-2 zone along Route 7, where his client’s property is located.

“The location is busy during business hours as it is a major north-south commuter route, but since the area is mainly non-retail business uses, including a medical center, after business hours it is somewhat desolate. A drive-thru in this location would have minimal impact on anyone but would have an enormous benefit to the business owner and its prospective customers.” he writes.

Lifting the prohibition on drive-thru food “is necessary to help our restaurants as well as our families still enjoy a meal prepared by professionals without unreasonably risking the transmission of disease,” Jewell says.

“Our world is forever changed,” he writes, “and, whether we like it or not, we are never going back to the way things were even a few months ago.”