Public Weighs in on Proposed 300-seat Outdoor Restaurant in Old Saybrook

Google Map Data, 2021


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OLD SAYBROOK — The proposal for Smoke on the Water, a 300-seat outdoor restaurant slated for the site of the former Dock & Dine at 145 College St, has attracted significant public attention, both positive and negative, as the project works its way through the town’s approval process for zoning and planning.

The plan calls for two large charcoal smokers centered around a fire pit and eight high-tech trailers — two equipped for food prep, one set up for alcohol service, one to house portable restrooms, and others to store supplies. The trailers would be on-site for 180 days or fewer per year and could be towed to safe ground if a severe storm was imminent.The previous restaurant at the same location at the mouth of the Connecticut River suffered significant storm damage leading to its closure about a decade ago.

Supporters of the proposal say it will bring much-needed tourism and economic activity to the town and revitalize a long-empty and beloved dining spot along the Connecticut River.

In a Feb. 19 memo to the zoning commission, Matthew Pugliese, chair of the town’s Economic Development Commission, called the project “a creative and reasonable solution to the challenges of rebuilding a traditional, permanent structure in this location.” 

“After almost a decade, the Economic Development Office and Commissioners still get questions about when the Dock N’ Dine will return to Saybrook Point. It is unfortunate to have to continually respond by saying that it is cost prohibitive to rebuild a permanent structure in that location due to the risks of flood and long-term-climate change that threaten the coastline.” 

According to Pugliese, the project offered several benefits for the town, including additional outdoor dining, 20 part-time and full-time jobs during operational months, and flexibility for future uses of the location.

On March 3, the same day as the project was on the planning commission agenda, one Facebook post in support of the project received 138 likes/loves and 38 positive comments. Some of the comments included, “Please please please we need to be able to sit with a water view and enjoy,” and “Yes, yes, yes a million times yes. I love this idea! Been missing Dock and Dine and been hoping it would come back at some point.” 

But a number of neighbors of the proposed restaurant have also written and spoken to the town’s zoning and planning commissions to voice concerns about noise, odor, vermin, traffic, parking, pollution, sewage problems, and environmental damage. Some have cited conflicts with town guidelines for preservation and aesthetics, as well as objections to loosening town rules about commercial trailers.

At a public hearing that opened on March 1, Wayne Harms, who lives in the neighborhood and has written letters opposing the project, told members of the Zoning Commission that he rejected the premise that an outdoor restaurant can be treated like an indoor restaurant. 

Colt Taylor, chef-owner of The Essex in Centerbrook, is partnering with the current owner of the Dock & Dine property…

Posted by CT Examiner on Thursday, January 21, 2021

“The difference is walls and ceilings. Noises, lights, smells, etc. can stay in an indoor restaurant but they cannot in an outdoor restaurant, so philosophically they’re not the same,” he said. 

Barbara Harms said she was concerned about noise, smells and litter, especially how to keep trash from blowing into the river and adjacent land.

At the March 1 meeting, neighbor Susan Malton expressed concern about the hours and capacity of the operation.

“With 300 people, how will you control the noise of that amount of people? How will you provide bathrooms for 300 people?” she asked.

At both commission meetings, Attorney Ed Cassella, of Cloutier & Cassella in Old Saybrook represented property owner Jon Kodama as well as chef Colt Taylor, who initially pitched the concept of the restaurant to the Zoning Commission on Jan. 20. 

“What we’re asking for outdoor restaurants is meant to mirror what occurs to a large extent with indoor restaurants,” said Cassella.

He said the standards that would apply to an outdoor restaurant would be very similar to those of indoor restaurants, including the sale of food and beverages to customers who are eating at tables or counters. 

Cassella said many details are being finalized, but the restaurant planned to be open from mid-April to mid-October seven days a week with longer hours in the summer than the shoulder seasons. 

“The plan is not to have large events like weddings. A rehearsal dinner is okay but this is not a large event facility,” he said. “In terms of noise, there are already 300 people at the mini-golf and other areas.” 

Liz Swenson, a member of the Economic Development Commission, who spoke in favor of the project at the hearing, focused on issues of climate change.

“I was hoping that the Dock & Dine would be rebuilt but understanding that we have flood zone issues, that isn’t really practical,” she said. “I’ve been involved with flood zone issues before and I think that this is really an excellent way to recognize that we’re living in a different era now with climate change and sea level rise and that this is really a great option for the town of Old Saybrook.”

Nanette Navarro, who lives in the neighborhood, told commission members that assuming the concerns of the residents could be addressed, she was excited about having a new restaurant to replace the Dock & Dine. 

“It’s just such a special place, and I would be in favor. I’ve been in some of the restaurants that the operator has in Mystic in different places, and he’s really a top notch operator. I think we can trust him to do the right thing, both in terms of the aesthetics and the operating concerns that Barbara and others have mentioned,” she said. 

Susie Beckman, director of economic development for the town, told the commission that the project aligns with the town’s new plan for supporting sustainability and resiliency in the business sector as well as revitalizing an underperforming property.

But Kathy Connolly, who lives in the neighborhood, told commission members that Cassella had “painted a rosy picture,” but that public access to the waterfront could be reduced because of the high volume of visitors to the restaurant. 

“This all has to happen on the best weather days of the year, [which] are the same ones when people go to the point and use the space on a free-of-charge basis because currently there is adequate public parking,” she said. “I believe there is an interference of the public use of the spot for a certain number of days of the year and I hope the Planning Commission will consider that.”

After discussion, the Planning Commission voted at its March 3 meeting that the project was consistent with the town’s plan of conservation and development. The commission approved a referral to the Zoning Commission for an amendment to the town’s zoning regulations that would include a definition of an outdoor restaurant.

The amendment would make a provision for temporary restaurant trailers in the SP-2 District as well as town-owned properties located on the Connecticut River or Long Island Sound for a maximum of 180 days per calendar year. 

The Planning Commission deferred discussion on a second issue — the project’s application for a special exception for an outdoor restaurant with temporary restaurant trailers, pavilion and tents — until a future meeting. 

The Zoning Commission will continue its public hearing on the matter on March 15. 

Documents and letters related to the project can be found here and here on the town’s website.