Ridgefield rejects proposal for drive-thru food

The empty restaurant building at 896 Ethan Allen Highway was the potential site of drive-through food service if the Planning and Zoning Commission had been receptive to the idea, but the commission wasn't open to it.

The empty restaurant building at 896 Ethan Allen Highway was the potential site of drive-through food service if the Planning and Zoning Commission had been receptive to the idea, but the commission wasn't open to it.

Macklin Reid / Hearst Connecticut Media

No drive through food in Ridgefield — the thought was crumpled up and tossed away like a greasy burger wrapper.

A suggestion that zoning regulations be loosened to allow drive-thru food service was quickly hooted down by the Planning and Zoning Commission on Tuesday night, June 9.

“There’s no reason to have drive-thru restaurants in Ridgefield,” said Commissioner John Katz. “They would almost without question be what we consider today fast food, as opposed to fine dining.

“It would be encouraging fast food. Litter is a problem,” Katz said.

In a letter proposing that Ridgefield ease up its decades-old ban on drive-thru food, attorney Bob Jewell said the main argument against drive-thru had always been litter — and that’s a much-diminished problem, these days.

Katz wasn’t buying it.

“My driveway is regularly assaulted by the likes of Dunkin Donuts and McDonald’s,” Katz said.

Commissioner Joe Fossi pointed to the garish roadside commerce in neighboring towns with more permissive zoning.

“I don’t want to see Route 7 turned into Federal Road,” he said. “I’ve given this a lot of thought. I just don’t know what good comes of it.”

There was no vote, since drive-thru food service had been put before the commission only for a “pre-submission concept discussion.” That’s an informal step designed to let developers get a read on how their ideas will be received, before putting money into the architects and engineers needed for a full application.

The commission’s attitude seemed quite clear.

“My reading of the consensus of the commission is that at this point there is not support to revise the regulations to allow drive-thru food service,” Chairwoman Rebecca Mucchetti said.

Lone dissent

There was one clear voice dissent, however.

“As a longtime resident of Ridgefield, I never understood why we didn’t have drive-thru restaurants,” said Commissioner George Halon.

He recalled that the short stretch of Route 7 that’s in Redding — north of Branchville, near the motel — used to have a drive-up coffee stand catering to commuters.

“I’ve never been against drive-thru restaurants,” he said.

After questioning littering as a justification for Ridgefield’s ban drive-thru food services, Jewell’s long letter argued that with the coronavirus pandemic, it makes sense to minimize the human contact needed to get restaurant meals.

“I think the world is changed,” he said. “We just had a drive-in movie at the high school.”

Subway? Dunkin?

And while there might be no drive-thru , he said Ridgefield already has what is arguably fast food — Subway, Dunkin Donuts, Starbuck’s.

“We do have a number of restaurants that are fast food,” Jewell said.

Jewell had put the drive-thru idea forward on behalf of a client — Bob Shoetz, owner of 896 Ethan Allen Highway.

There’d been a series of restaurants on the site: first the Hungry Knight, decades back, and more recently a succession of quickly failing ventures — Mexican, Ritz Asia, a steak house, a tappas place.

But Jewell and Shoetz argued that the commission wasn’t being asked to loosen it’s regulations for the benefit of one property owner, as some commissioners had worried.

“This wouldn’t be unique to me,” Shoetz said. “It would apply to everybody who has the same situation in the same zone — it would be for everybody in the zone.”

“A property owner who pays over $37,000 a year in property and sewer use taxes can’t ask for a change without being looked at as self-serving — I don’t think that’s a fair assessment,” Jewell said.

Commissioners weren’t convinced by Jewell’s suggestion that drive-thru food services make sense in the world of social distancing required by the coronavirus pandemic.

“I think curbside pickup has been working really well, and it’s probably been keeping some people employed,” said Susan Consentino.

“I read your letter several times,” Charles Robbins told Jewell. “...You may be right, but I’m not willing to assume that our lives will be changed forever more as a result of COVID.”