Small Town Connecticut Re-thinks the Drive-Thru


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Frank D’Andrea, who owns a Dunkin Donuts on Route 81 in Killingworth, and several others along the shoreline and New Haven area, applied to the Killingworth Planning and Zoning Commission last year to allow drive-thru windows in the town’s commercial areas.

Last October, the commission unanimously approved the application, making drive-thru windows an accessory use in the town’s commercial district, so that now property owners can apply for a special exception, and Planning and Zoning can review and approve any plans to add a drive thru.

Commission chair Thomas Lentz said that drive-thru lanes had been opposed in Killingworth for years after a bank on Route 81 – now the town library – wanted to put in a drive-thru window decades ago. 

There was concern at the time about people throwing trash out of their car windows, according to Lentz, and there hadn’t been another attempt to approve a drive-thru until D’Andrea applied to add one to his store.

This time, the proposal didn’t raise any opposition, at least at public hearings and in comments to the Planning and Zoning commission.

On Tuesday night, the commission unanimously approved the application.

Adjusting to a reality where drive-thru windows are nearly ubiquitous for banks, chain pharmacies, and many restaurants, a number of towns in the region are revisiting the issue.

In Colchester, Jack’s Chevrolet building on South Main Street has been a source of complaints for years. The building, on the town’s major commercial thoroughfare, has sat vacant since General Motors closed the dealership during the 2009 recession, and the site has been the subject of extensive environmental remediation for years.

Rick Sharr, a local realtor who has owned the building since 2015, told CT Examiner that there aren’t currently any plans for the site aside from completing remediation, but he has heard from parties interested in the site. 

The catch, Sharr said, is that buyers are only interested in the property if the town will allow a drive-thru window, and back in 2015, the town’s Planning and Zoning Commission eliminated a provision allowing them in the Village Center.

Sharr is asking the commission to restore drive-thru windows as a use by special exception – meaning that businesses could apply for an approval from the town. 

On Monday, Colchester Town Planner Matthew Bordeaux told Economic Development Commission members that the town’s Planning and Zoning Commission had either deleted or omitted language allowing drive-thru windows from revised regulations in 2015.

Currently, drive-thru windows are allowed by special permit only in the town’s Arterial Commercial District – a small overlay zone added in 2015.

Sharr told the Colchester Economic Development Commission on Monday he didn’t realize the regulations had changed until around 2018 when he was working on a deal with Dollar Tree to fill the space. He said there was a thought to portion up the property and put in a restaurant with a drive-thru at the time, and even town officials were unaware of the change.

“Nobody’s saying what they want to put there, but they want the ability to have a drive-thru window, should they desire,” he said.

According to Sharr, the environmental cleanup of the property, which he purchased in 2015, has been a “can of worms.” He told commission members that he is nearing what he thinks are the final stages of the cleanup, and that the partners want the property “completely clean” to avoid any restrictions on the use of the property, though he said that he’s thought that before and been disappointed.

“We’d like it to be clean to the point where, if somebody wanted to develop it for mixed-use, it could end up with a residential component,” Sharr said.

On South Main Street already a number of businesses have drive-thru windows — a CVS across the street from the vacant dealership, Liberty Bank, Dunkin Donuts, McDonald’s, and Wendy’s. Those are now non-conforming uses that were grandfathered when the regulations were changed in 2015.

“From a business development perspective, we don’t have a level playing field for somebody new who wants to come in and develop a piece of property,” Sharr said. 

Sharr said that the pandemic had dramatized the importance of drive-thrus, and that businesses with them tended to do better than those without. He said the windows were also a way to accommodate Connecticut’s aging population, and that people who are less mobile can more easily access drive-thru pharmacies.

The change to allow drive-thru windows once again, got a nod of support from the Economic Development Commission, whose members agreed it could benefit development – but they sidestepped details that would be handled by the Planning and Zoning Commission.

The commission accepted that application on Wednesday night, and Bordeaux said the change was “tentatively” scheduled for a public hearing at the commission’s next meeting on Sept. 1.