Dunkin Drive-Thru Decision in Stamford Heads to Court


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STAMFORD – Sarah Beltran didn’t buy it when a zoning official ruled that use of a bank drive-thru is just as intense as use of a doughnut shop drive-thru.

The ruling was the basis of a decision to allow a drive-thru for a new Dunkin’ Donuts, once a Wells Fargo Bank branch, on traffic-snarled Hope Street in Beltran’s Glenbrook neighborhood.

“It defies common sense,” said Beltran, one of many residents who oppose a drive-thru for 364 Hope St. “So I did my own research.”

She talked to the drive-thru teller at M&T Bank next door to the Dunkin’ Donuts site.

“He said he gets about 40 customers a day,” Beltran said. 

Then she talked to the drive-thru cashier at Donut Delight, a Dunkin’ Donuts competitor at 274 Hope St. a few blocks away.

“She said they get at least 300 cars a day, probably more,” Beltran said. “That’s 7.5 times more traffic.”

A bank is open fewer hours and fewer days a week, and doesn’t draw the volume of customers as a shop that sells doughnuts and coffee and sandwiches made with bagels.

“I don’t know how anyone could think those two things would be equivalent,” Beltran said.

She spoke at the November meeting of the Zoning Board of Appeals, when members heard a complaint from the owners of Donut Delight and two residents seeking to have the decision by Zoning Enforcement Officer Jim Lunney overturned. 

No reason to say no

Lunney said he found no reason to reject a request from the Dunkin’ Donuts owner for a drive-thru lane, as the Wells Fargo Bank had before it. He knows the site is near a congested intersection on a street with small condominium and apartment complexes, multi-family homes, gas stations, dry cleaners, gyms, delicatessens, pizza places, a post office, and other destinations that generate lots of car trips, Lunney told the board.

But a zoning official’s definition of “intense use” is not the same as a layperson’s definition, Lunney said. 

A two-story house with apartments on top and retail space on the bottom, for example, is a more intense use than a two-story house where a single family lives.

“Anybody can say more people use a Dunkin’ Donuts than a bank, but that is not something I can look at for intensity,” Lunney said. “I know there are traffic issues, but that is not a zoning concern, either. I can only go by the regulations.”

They were changed in 2018 to limit drive-thru’s in all businesses, except banks and pharmacies, in all zones except industrial and manufacturing. Because the new Dunkin’ Donuts was a bank with a drive-thru window at the time the new regulation was enacted, it is “grandfathered in” for a doughnut drive-thru, Lunney told the Zoning Board of Appeals. 

“Maybe it’s not the best location for a Dunkin’ Donuts. Maybe people would rather it not be there. But it would be illegal for me to not let Dunkin’ Donuts go there with a drive-thru,” Lunney said. 

Before issuing the permit for the drive-thru, he consulted with traffic engineers who added a caveat saying that if traffic from the Dunkin’ Donuts drive-thru starts to back up onto Hope Street, the owner must rework the site, Lunney said.

Coffee on every corner

Joseph Capalbo, the attorney for Dunkin’ Donuts franchisee Cain Management Inc. of Norwalk, said Lunney decided right.

Lunney “had no choice but to approve this because it is a legal use,” Capalbo said. 

Jim Cain, president of Cain Management, went farther than needed “to benefit the community,” Capalbo said.

“The city asked for concessions, even though they had no leverage. My client could have said no, but he decided to work with the city,” Capalbo said. “The result was that queuing was expanded to accommodate a minimum of 15 cars … and the drive-thru was reduced from two lanes to one.”

Capalbo said the complaint filed with the Zoning Board of Appeals was led by his client’s competitor, Donut Delight.

“The sole purpose is to try to stop competition. The last thing they want is for a Dunkin’ Donuts to open down the street,” Capalbo said. 

But the competition will help with traffic complaints about Donut Delight, where cars in the drive-thru queue create traffic jams on Hope Street, Capalbo said.

“If you open up a coffee shop on every corner, there will never be a line anywhere,” he said.

Bakery vs. fast food

Adam Blank, the attorney for Donut Delight and the two Glenbrook residents, said Lunney got it wrong. The city designates Dunkin’ Donuts as a bakery, not a bank, and drive-thru’s for bakeries were not permitted when the regulation was changed in 2018, Blank said

“It has to be exactly the same use, otherwise it’s not permitted,” Blank said. “If it did not exist at the time of the regulation change, it is not grandfathered in.”

The Zoning Board of Appeals agreed. All four members at the meeting voted to overturn Lunney’s decision to give Dunkin’ Donuts a drive-thru permit.

Board Chair Joseph Pigott said he was not convinced that the right to a drive-thru was being transferred to the same use of the property. He’s not even sure the zoning regulations properly define Dunkin’ Donuts, Pigott said.

“There is no checklist or scorecard to determine how to place any given retail use within a category,” he said. Defining Dunkin’ Donuts as a bakery “might have been reasonable 10 years ago, but looking at the menu offerings on the Dunkin’ Donuts website today, I don’t see a retail bakery,” Pigott said.

Board member George Dallas agreed.

“It’s more and more a fast food restaurant,” Dallas said. “As they continue to extend their brand, they are building more product to fill the lunch category, the dinner category. So more and more traffic will end up going through that window.”

Fast food restaurants are not permitted on that site, board members said.

“Drive-thru banks are going away; these doughnut shops are going to buy them,” board member Jerry Hourihan said. “So this is going to keep happening.”

Now it’s up to a judge

Board member Lauren Jacobson said the doughnut shop use “is definitely more intense than a bank … so I don’t know how we got around this not being a more intensive use. I think it will end up in court.”

She was right.

Cain said after the meeting that he will appeal the board’s decision against granting his drive-thru permit. He’s already spoken to a lawyer about taking the case to state Superior Court, Cain said. 

The Dunkin’ Donuts on Hope Street will open in a few weeks without a drive-thru, for now, he said. 

Cain Management already owns and operates 11 Dunkin’ Donuts stores in Stamford, five of them with drive-up windows, Cain said. The family company also has about 15 stores in Norwalk, Darien, New Canaan, Ridgefield and Wilton, he said.

“If we don’t have the legal rights, we don’t buy the property. In this situation, we have our legal rights. Otherwise Lunney wouldn’t have approved it,” Cain said. “If I had been denied by Lunney, I would not appeal this. We don’t fight with towns about this – that’s not how I built my company.”

Cain said he’s sympathetic with residents’ concerns about traffic on Hope Street.

“There is too much congestion in Stamford – in Norwalk as well – and I believe residents should govern what they want to see in their community,” Cain said. “But while you are changing things, don’t take away people’s rights. We are following the rules of engagement. In fact, we went beyond the call of duty … to make it as good as it could be. Tell me what the rules are and I will follow them. Just don’t change them in the middle.”

Angela Carella

For 36 years prior to joining the Connecticut Examiner, Angela Carella was a beat reporter, investigative reporter, editor and columnist for the Stamford Advocate. Carella reports on Stamford and Fairfield County. T: 203 722 6811.