Without Detailed Designs,’Smoke on the Water,’ Hits Turbulence in Old Saybrook


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OLD SAYBROOK — Smoke on the Water, a 300-seat outdoor restaurant slated for the former Dock and Dine property on College Ave., hit an obstacle Monday night when the Architectural Review Board agreed that the project application was incomplete and asked for a landscape plan that complied with regulations, elevations of the food trailers, and a site plan showing the locations of tables, tents and other equipment. 

The board’s questions began during a zoom presentation about the restaurant — which will use towable trailers for food prep, storage, and bar service — by Ed Cassella, an attorney of Old Saybrook who represented Dock and Dine owner Jon Kadama as well as chef Colt Taylor. 

Cassella said that the project would include a permanent pavilion and showed a pdf of the paint color of the proposed red metal roof. He said Taylor had proposed a “navy blue indigo” for the trailers, but Gateway River Commission had indicated it would like the trailers to be earth tones and muted colors. 

“Colt is looking at this from a restaurant perspective so he wants certain colorings. The one comparable that we have is the Blue Oar up in Haddam, which has kind of a vibrant color scheme,” said Cassella. 

Edward Armstrong, vice chair, said that despite the zoom format, the board needed to see samples of materials and paint colors and a spec sheet. 

“Many of our applicants bring in materials to say here’s a piece of the roof, so we can see the color and the texture… I think I’m getting a sense that what we’re going to be seeing for the rest of your presentation is, ‘Maybe we’re gonna do this and maybe we’re gonna do that,’ but when it comes to the Architecture Review Board, we need to see it in writing.”

Taylor, who was on the zoom call, said the pavilion will be constructed with pressure-treated pine, meant to “mimic the pavilions that you see in Hammonasset in its simplicity.” 

“This whole project is meant to elevate the natural surrounding of the space of landscaping and simplicity — natural seagrass, natural wood. The red roof was an idea for the simple fact that we do have these public docks we’re building and we can’t have that big of a sign … the red roof would essentially create an eye draw from the water. That’s it. The other colors we’d consider as charcoal and the slate, going for more of a dark appeal.”

But Emily Grochowski, chair of the Architectural Review Board, reiterated that the board needed to see samples, which could be dropped at the land use office. 

Taylor said that because of a shortage of materials and supply chain issues in ordering the custom-built trailers, the project may be configured as two 30-foot trailers instead of four 20-foot trailers. 

He said that after discussions with Police Chief Michael Spera, they had abandoned the idea of picnic tables and instead will use aluminum tables and chairs that will be stacked and chained to the pavilion in the event of a storm. He said that the emergency storm plan will require “maybe two extra trailers to get everything on there.” 

Taylor said the project has contracted with R.J. Dibble and Sons to tow away the trailers to their property in the event of a storm.

As more details emerged, Grochowski said the application had a lot of information that she did not need to know and not enough that she did need to know.

She said she was troubled that the applicant had used the word “temporary” a number of times to describe the project.  

“To me, it’s seasonal but it’s not temporary because it could be there seasonally for like 50 years,” she said. 

Grochowski said that it would be difficult for the board to say whether the project meets the intent of town regulations. 

Vice Chair Edward Armstrong said that zoning regulations required a perimeter landscaping buffer that sufficiently shielded adjacent properties from “sights, noise, headlight glare or visual intrusion.” He asked whether the design could help protect the neighbors from the visual intrusion of the lights.

Grochowski said that site landscaping should be the easiest part of the application in terms of meeting regulations, but a number of areas fell short. 

“It doesn’t have the perimeter landscape buffer … it doesn’t have like the minimum landscape … it doesn’t have the variety of trees and shrubs that are required. It doesn’t have the interior parking lot landscape islands. It doesn’t have landscaping to screen any of the things that maybe are a little bit unsightly that would normally be screened by a building,” she said. 

She said there was also no information about the location of the tents.

“At some point, when you have like eight trailers, plus a pavilion, plus a cashier booth, plus three tents of indeterminate size, that is a large mass, that, again, in some way needs to demonstrate that it’s meeting the intent of the regulations for the design standards,” she said. 

Taylor said an outdoor restaurant could have a day’s worth of business wiped out by a light rain and that tents provided flexible options. 

“They’re movable, it’s kind of like not really wanting to commit to one location on a plan because maybe we put it in one area and maybe we move it,” he said, adding that the tables will have umbrella stands within them. 

He said he envisioned the property “being executed with elegance and class,” including the landscaping.

But Grochowski said the board needed to see everything laid out on a plan with elevations. 

“We can’t make our motion to recommend approval or not based on what you envision and describe as classy. If you’re saying that trailer number five is going to be blocked because that area of landscaping is higher there, we have to see that, either on a plan that’s graded with elevations or we have to see it with an exterior elevation like you might do for a building elevation.”

Taylor said that a 15-foot buffer around the property would remove 25 extra parking spaces the restaurant would provide for the town, approved as part of the site plan in 2013. 

Grochowski said that it seemed “really necessary” to have the landscaping buffer on the side facing the North Cove Road houses. 

Taylor said he was willing to approach the new restaurant as a phased project as a way forward amidst the economic realities of the restaurant industry during the pandemic.

“We’re trying to open a new concept here and we need cash flow to get to where we want to go and there there could be a laundry list of 100 things that we want to do, but you’ve got to separate them into a realistic approach, year by year,” he said. 

But Grochowski said the board could not provide approval without knowing the details of each phase. 

“We can’t do it where we don’t know what phase one and phase two is. We can’t do it if we don’t know how many trailers it is and how long they are,” she said. 

The board voted to continue the application until May 10, but was willing to arrange a special meeting if Cassella and Taylor could submit all of the necessary materials and drawings sooner.