Zoning Rejects Beer and Wine Service at Cocotte in Old Saybrook

OLD SAYBROOK — Cocotte French Cuisine and Desserts received a ‘hard no’ from the town’s Zoning Commission Monday night regarding a possible permit to serve beer and wine — a decision that threatens the viability of the new restaurant, the owners said. 

Jeffrey and Isabelle DeFrancesco, who opened Cocotte on June 25 in the historic James Pharmacy at 2 Pennywise Lane, said a beer and wine license would allow their restaurant to stay in business.

“We’re trying to sustain a business and we’ve just launched. And I can tell you right now, if we don’t sell beer or wine in the coming winter months, the James Pharmacy will be empty by Christmas 2022. I can guarantee you that. I’ve already seen the numbers. We’ve been open five weeks and that’s why we’re here,” Jeffrey DeFrancesco told the commission. 

He said the town’s zoning regulations allow for special exception uses to be considered, especially for the pharmacy, which was operated from 1917 to 1967 by Anna Louise James, the first African-American female pharmacist in Connecticut. 

“We think this is an individual case. We think the James Pharmacy is a beloved space and we’re looking for your guidance on how we can keep this space open for the next 10 years,” he said. 

But Robert Friedmann, chair of the Zoning Commission, said that adding a beer and wine license would represent an additional or expanded use of an existing nonconforming use of the building, which has “a long history of variances” and is located in a residential zone rather than a business district. 

“There’s a long list of things that are permitted for this property that are ordinarily not permitted whatsoever in a residence A district. You get to keep what you have, you don’t get to change it to anything which would be nonconforming,” Friedmann said. “That you seek to add a beer or wine license to what you have is an expansion of a nonconformity. The objective is to make the nonconformity go away, not to allow it to change to become more self-sustaining.”

DeFrancesco pointed out that the space has already been approved as a restaurant in a non-conforming building, but Friedmann said that beer and wine were not among the list of allowed items approved by the Zoning Board of Appeals on May 12, 2010. 

The town’s zoning appeared to be inconsistent, DeFrancesco said, because some other restaurants, like Little Pub at 1231 Boston Post Road, were located directly across from residential districts and were allowed to serve beer and wine. He also said the McDonald’s, located at 1061 Boston Post Road, has been granted large signage that is not consistent with the character of the area nor does it achieve harmony with the adjacent residential neighborhood. 

Friedmannn said that zoning regulations in one district are intended to be different from those of another district. He also said that changing the James Pharmacy parcel to a business district would be considered spot-zoning. 

Cocotte is the latest business that has tried to establish itself in the James Pharmacy space. In July 2019, CT Examiner visited Caffé Marche which opened in July 2017 and closed its doors in August 2019. 

DeFrancesco said that the town and the Zoning Commission should consider how much business Cocotte has attracted to Old Saybrook. 

“Since we opened five weeks ago, we’ve had people drive up from New Haven, West Hartford and Stonington to come try our restaurant. My appeal to you is to reconsider the rules that you have in place here, not just for us, but for the people of this town because those same people who are coming up from New Haven and West Hartford, they’re shopping the whole town, they’re not just coming to our restaurant,” he said. 

Isabelle DeFrancesco said customers bring their own beer and wine to Cocotte, which, in practice, is the equivalent of a beer and wine license except that the restaurant can only charge a corkage fee.

“Help me understand, what is the difference between bringing your own beverage and having a beer and wine license?” she asked the commission. 

Jeffrey DeFrancesco added that the building was originally connected to a tavern down the street. 

“It was actually tied to the use of an establishment that sold beer and wine. So the question isn’t an expansion of use when its original offer was that it was tied to a tavern” he said.

Friedmann said that use was not carried forward, nor was it on the 2010 list of uses approved by the Zoning Board of Appeals.

“What it has is listed in a document and the regulations were documented and in place way before 2010, and the ZBA has stretched those to the limit, I think. There is no path forward for an expanded use to include beer and wine at this unit and I think that’s about it. I think that’s pretty clear. The answer is no and sometimes the answer has to be no,” Friedmann said. 

It was unclear whether the owners of Cocotte will approach the Zoning Board of Appeals to discuss whether a beer and wine license could be added as a nonconforming use.

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