Colchester Decision on Drive-Thru ‘Not Realistic’

Following up on Brendan Crowley’s August 20th article, “Small Town Connecticut Re-thinks the Drive-Thru,” we are disappointed that Colchester’s Planning and Zoning Commission declined to adopt the proposed zoning regulation amendment that would have given potential businesses the right to apply for drive-through service. 

To be clear – the regulation change proposed was NOT a drive through by right.  Rather it was merely the right to APPLY for such by special permit; the special permit would be a separate review and could be approved or denied.   The regulations of other area town’s were researched and considered.  Care was taken in drafting the proposed amendment to include standards, submission requirements such as a traffic report, and discretion for the Planning and Zoning Commission to deny a special permit where the standards are not met or to condition approval of a special permit to meet site-specific issues.  Voting down the proposed change said to us that the Commission does not have enough confidence in its own ability to decide, on an individual basis, which businesses and drive throughs would be appropriate in the town center, and which would not.  

In voting down the amendment, Commission members referred to the Plan of Conservation and Development (PCOD) adopted in 2015.  As part of that plan certain uses were “Strongly discouraged” in the town center – namely, shopping malls, “big box” retailers, multiple driveways , large parking lots and drive-through uses.  We would like to point out that “Strongly discouraged” does not equal “disallowed.” 

Today, people demand drive-through service for many types of businesses.  They insist on it because it is convenient and safer to have transactions where they can maintain their social distance.  Many people cannot get around easily – the elderly and disabled individuals.  Drive-through service is essential for them.  The automatic and outright prohibition on drive-through service in Colchester’s business district without a path to at least request the Commission’s consideration of one severely damages the marketability and development potential of retail and commercial properties. 

We purchased the property in 2015 and until recently assumed (as did various people in town hall) that drive throughs were allowed.  Only recently, when we had a potential developer for the property, did we learn that this was no longer the case.  Prior to the 2015 POCD, drive-thru service was authorized in the town center.  In fact, several businesses currently operate with drive-thru windows in the town center (Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts (3), several banks, CVS, Walgreens, McDonalds, Wendy’s, to name a few.)  Although our property seemed to be the main focus of the Commission members and citizens who spoke during the comment period, the fact that a developer cannot even apply for a special use permit not only disadvantages our property, but also ALL other developable property in the town center.   Even existing businesses in the town center that might want to expand to allow drive-through service would not be able to.  Sadly, without this ability, the potential developer for our site is no longer interested in Colchester. 

The town wants to see mixed use, and that may be an ideal use.  However, that is a costly proposition – between $16 and $18 million.  And, there needs to be someone who wants to develop it as such.  We do not.  Two of us are in our 70s and it’s not something that we want or can do at this stage in our lives.  The remediation has taken far longer than we anticipated when we purchased the property and at a greater cost, and we aren’t done yet.  We feel the town is not being realistic.  

In retrospect, we believe the outcome of the Commission meeting was preordained from the beginning and the hearing an exercise in futility.   We have been in town since the 60s and are among Colchester’s top tax payers.  We have been good citizens and, collectively, have added to the fabric of the community in providing housing, in keeping our commercial properties maintained, and supporting our tenants and working with them through the pandemic.  We are cleaning up a brownfield in the center of town — pollution going back to the 1930s when, we’ve been told, there was a gas station on that site.  There is no acknowledgement or appreciation of this fact.   And no consideration.

Additionally, the vote was not unanimous.  Following a comment of support from a business owner at the opposite end of South Main Street, two of the Commission members asked if they could abstain from the vote.  One member commented (and we are paraphrasing here) – “We say we want economic development and then we make it difficult for developers.”   Given this comment, and the fact that the proposal amendment had the support of both Colchester’s Economic Development Commission and the Colchester Business Association, we are disheartened that the Commission didn’t even see fit to table the motion to give it further review. 

In the past, we have been criticized by town officials for the eyesore that is 120 South Main.  It is not of our making and we have been working to remediate the existing pollution for over 5 years.  Without the support of the town, the eyesore sits.

Rick Sharr, Sandra Sharr, Robert Gagnon
120 South Main, LLC

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