July 4, 2022

Proposed Essex Zoning Amendments Would Ease Restaurant Restrictions While Banning Fast Food Establishments

ESSEX— The zoning commission has proposed two zoning amendments that would ease restrictions on any proposed new restaurants while separately banning chain fast food restaurants and drive-through windows in town. The proposed amendments, along with a series of revised and updated definitions, will be presented at a Jan. 28 public hearing.

Joseph Budrow, zoning enforcement officer, said Wednesday he has been working with commission Chairman Alvin Wolfgram on the proposed amendments for more than a year. One of the proposed amendments would remove provisions of the zoning regulations that have limited new restaurants in Essex for more than two decades.

The amendment would delete language in the regulations dating back to the 1980s that prohibit new restaurants on a corner lot, on parcels with 200 feet of a corner lot, and on parcels within 750 feet of an existing restaurant. These restrictions played a role in March when the zoning board of appeals rejected variance appeals for a proposed coffee and pastry shop in vacant space at 57-61 Main Street in the Centerbrook section.The board suggested it was up to the zoning commission to revise the rules on restaurants, rather than looking to the ZBA to approve variances of the regulations to open up vacant space for possible new restaurants.

“The commission decided this was something it would like to do,” Budrow said. He added the panel later next year would propose removal of another restaurant restriction dating to the 1980s that limits new restaurants in Essex to no more then 10 seats. This rule has also blocked proposals for new restaurants in recent years.

But while the commission is proposing an easing of some restaurant restrictions, the Jan. 28 public hearing will also include a proposed ban on any new fast food restaurants in Essex, along with a ban on new drive-through windows for either restaurants or banks. The only fast food restaurants in town are the Dunkin Donuts in Centerbrook, that has been in business for about five years, and a subway restaurant at the Bokum Corners shopping plaza. Three banks in town currently have drive-through windows for banking.

Budrow said Wolfgram had suggested the proposed ban on fast food restaurants and drive- through windows. He acknowledged the proposed blanket prohibition on these uses could generate a legal challenge.

The definition of a fast food restaurant, which is included among the proposed updates of definitions set for the January public hearing, would define a fast food restaurant as an establishment with over ten franchises in other towns that offers a “standardized menu” that customers order and obtain at a location separate the from tables where people consume food.

Budrow said the proposed changes for rules on restaurants are not prompted by any possible specific proposals expected in the near future, but rather are an effort by the commission to determine whether town residents support the proposed changes.