OLD SAYBROOK — With new drive-thru regulations in progress, a new consultant looking at development on Mariner’s Way and two newly approved recreational cannabis facilities, candidates for the town’s Zoning Commission spoke to CT Examiner about their views on development and their vision for the town going forward.
Three of the four candidates —Republicans Mark Caldarella and John Henry and Democrat Justin Terribile — have either been alternates or held seats on the commission in the past. The fourth, Democrat Laura Gray, has been a member of the Inland Wetlands Commission since 2021.
The four candidates are vying for three seats on the Zoning Commission.
Development/small town balance
“We don’t have chain restaurant after chain restaurant or chain store after chain store. We have a Main Street that is all small businesses and boutique type shops and restaurants and theaters,” said Henry, who has been an alternate for three years. “We have Route 1, and it … still feels small, but we have everything that you would really want in terms of hardware stores and grocery stores and salons and nail places for everybody.”
Henry said he worried about overdevelopment, particularly around Route 1, but said there were also open spaces in town that, if developed, would add to the tax base.
As a mechanical engineer, Henry noted that he enjoys the technical aspects of zoning. “You really have an impact on what’s going on in town and how the town is evolving and changing,” he said.
Mark Caldarella, a member of the Zoning Commission since 2015, said keeping that balance between development and keeping a small town feel was part of the challenge when considering applicants’ proposals.
“Old Saybrook is a destination location for a lot of people — tourists or vacationers — but with amenities that appeal to the broader base is something that we look to do,” said Caldarella. “The town is a well-run town, and it’s a unique one on the coast in comparison to what’s around us, and keeping that feel is important.”
Caldarella, whose career has been in the building industry and who has built his own houses, said the purpose of the Zoning Commission’s work wasn’t simply to increase the town’s tax base.
“The side benefit of growing a grand list is always beneficial to the tax base, but that’s not the driving force,” said Caldarella. “[It’s] what’s in the best interest of citizens of Old Saybrook, public health and safety as developments are proposed.”
Terribile said he thought the town had done a good job encouraging “smart” development.
“It’s looking at the picture holistically. We want to not just look at individual challenges, but we need to look at … the regulations we’ve put in place and how do we interpret [the regulations] and how does it affect the town as a whole versus how does it affect one piece of property,” he said.
Terribile, who has been an alternate on the Planning and Zoning Commission for the past six years and a member of the Planning and Zoning Commission in Madison for four years before that, said serving on the commission was a way of investing in the town where he plans to raise his children.
“I think zoning is one of those unique commissions that allows very bipartisan working together to create a community that people want to be a part of,” he said.
Gray told CT Examiner the current Zoning Commission had done a good job in keeping the development/small town balance, and that if elected she would continue on the same path. She said her work in scientific sales had increased her listening abilities and taught her to work with clients to find solutions – important skills she would bring to the commission.
Gray said the big reason she decided to run for the Zoning Commission was the need to preserve historic buildings in the town. She said the town recently demolished one historic building, the Jedidiah Dudley House from 1750, despite it being on the National Register of Historic Places.
“We knew it was coming, but there was just nothing in place to try to save this house,” she said. “The town hasn’t budgeted to rescue historic places that are at risk.”
In the case of both the Dudley house and the Jacob Chalker House, built in 1735, which Gray said is now at risk of demolition, the owners of the properties offered to sell them to the town to save the structures. But Gray said there’s no mechanism by which the town could purchase these buildings.
She said putting aside funding to save these structures was a top priority and that she was interested in exploring the possibility of creating a historic district in town.
“These are just ideas that need to be explored, because we can’t afford to lose more historic structures,” Gray said.
Caldarella, Henry and Gray said they wanted to increase the amount of affordable housing in town.
Caldarella said the developments on Route 1 and Lynde Street, and the apartments by the railroad station had all been a success, but the town wanted more.
“There’s a great need for people who work in town that would like to live here as well that can’t afford the property values that have escalated during the last four years during the pandemic,” he said. “$2,000 a month of rent is tough for someone who’s making $30,000 or $40,000 … it’s a very complicated, difficult situation.”
Henry said he was in favor of affordable housing, but wasn’t sure which regulations could be changed to better facilitate an increase in the stock. He and Caldarella both noted it was incumbent on the developers to come in with proposals.
Gray said she saw a post on Facebook asking people to rent rooms to volunteer firefighters because there weren’t enough affordable spaces available.
“Affordable housing has also led to declining school enrollment, which is a big problem in town. Families can’t afford to live here,” she said.
Terribile said demand for affordable housing would depend on the economic market, which the Zoning Commission has no control over. But, he said, the commission has worked to incorporate affordable housing into new developments.
“With any new development or development project that comes in front of the commission, there is an affordable housing component that we try to integrate into each of those applications, just as a baseline,” he said.
Recreational cannabis dispensaries
Candidates differed on their opinions about the decision to allow two recreational marijuana dispensaries in town — one on Boston Post Road and one on Custom Drive.
Gray said the commission made the right decision to allow the Fine Fettle dispensary to open on Boston Post Road, despite controversy.
“[Cannabis] is legal. And I think a lot of the people who weren’t in favor of Fine Fettle were trying to think of other excuses, but they really didn’t want to have people who use cannabis in Old Saybrook,” said Gray.
Henry said bringing recreational dispensaries into town was a negative development, and that he didn’t necessarily agree with the state’s decision to legalize recreational cannabis. But, he said the Zoning Commission had ultimately made the correct decision.
“I think the zoning commission did everything they could. The applicants addressed every concern that the zoning regulations had,” said Henry. “There’s some unknowns. The traffic is unknown. But the more dispensaries there are around the state, the less concerned the traffic becomes. It doesn’t seem like this big rush to all these dispensaries is really going on.”
Caldarella said his votes about the cannabis dispensaries were mainly based on traffic — he said he voted against one of the facilities because of concerns about congestion, but that he thought the other was in an acceptable spot.
Terribile declined to comment on the cannabis facilities.
The Zoning Commission has been drafting drive-thru regulations for nearly a year after Starbucks, Chase Bank, Panera and Chipotle — all of which have leases to open in Max’s Plaza on Spencer Plain Road — said they wanted drive-thru windows. The town just extended its moratorium on drive-thru windows to June 2024.
Both Caldarella and Henry said it wasn’t the Zoning Commission’s intention to drag out the process, but they had wanted to get the perspectives of a wide variety of people before finalizing the regulations.
“We took the time to meet with various drive-thru operators to learn from them, what they’ve experienced and how their business has changed. We did listen to developers’ representatives as to some of their concerns and thoughts and took that all into consideration,” said Caldarella, who added that the board had to extend the moratorium because it still needed to hold a public hearing.
Henry said that with all the restaurants asking for drive-thru regulations, the town needed to make sure it had a strong regulatory structure. He said that when the Dunkin Donuts was approved, the commission had not anticipated how popular it was or how much traffic it would cause on Route 1.
“Our Dunkin Donuts — it doesn’t work,” he said. “And I think, we said, we’d better figure this out so that we don’t have more of this kind of problem again.”
Terribile said the commission wanted to make sure it looked at how the regulations would affect the town “in its entirety.”
“That impacts the town as a whole. It will impact traffic. It’s going to impact convenience, So those are things that are really important to the members that live in the town,” said Terribile.
Gray declined to comment on specifics about drive-thrus, but said she liked what she heard from the current Zoning Commission.
In July, the town hired a new consultant to draft a plan for the stretch of Route 1 dubbed “Mariner’s Way.”
Caldarella said he saw opportunities with the advent of the new consultant. He said the previous proposal contained a few things that “didn’t make sense.” He noted that there were several brownfields that needed to be cleaned up.
“Plus you have a lot of existing businesses that have been operating there for years, so their needs and such cannot be pushed aside for properties that have yet to be developed,” said Caldarella. “So, finding that balance too.”
Terribile said he also saw opportunities with the new consultant, particularly around planning and obtaining public feedback.
“I think it gives us an opportunity to get public opinion on what we should include as a part of the planning process,” he said. “I think it gives us an opportunity to provide feedback on what has worked and what has not worked in town, so that when they’re making recommendations, or we’re trying to find developers that want to take part in a project like that, we know what to focus on and what not to.”
Henry said he’d like to see development in the Mariner’s Way area, but that “it had to be the right fit.”
“I think our biggest asset is our location relative to water — either the river or the sound,” said Henry. “In those areas that are accessible, people want to see development in that area.”
Gray declined to comment on the Mariner’s Way project.
Gray said she thought the Zoning Commission could do more to address climate change. She said the current regulations in town were not adequate.
“We haven’t had a storm in a while, but we’re at great risk being at sea level, and the fact that storms — because the atmospheric and ocean temperatures are higher — storms are just more intense,” she said. “The town hasn’t budgeted for anything to get ready for the inevitable.”
She referenced a 2018 Coastal Resilience and Adaptation Study that the town hired a consultant to produce. She said there are areas in Old Saybrook that are at risk for severe flooding, and that the consultants proposed ideas for mitigating risks.
“One of their ideas was to encourage development in parts of town that are north of I-95,” said Gray. “Unfortunately, the minimum lot sizes and coverage requirements for lots north of I-95 are like an acre to an acre and a third. So, right away, that’s not going to help encourage housing in that area.”
She also said the consultants recommended managing development and increasing resilience in flood-prone areas — including creating “resilient corridors” to connect areas outside the flood zone so that people could evacuate safely.