OLD SAYBROOK – If you build it, they will come but where will they park?
The fanfare of the 150-seat Vinnie Baker’s Saybrook Fish House, which opened in Nov. 2005, is so large that customers find the restaurant’s lot completely full on busy nights forcing them to park nearby along residential streets.
The restaurant is located at 99 Essex Road and has on-site parking in the front and rear.
Desiring to meet the needs of customers and protect the neighborhood, Lamont Landings, LLC, who owns Vinnie’s, has looked at a 0.65 acre piece of property, across the street from the restaurant, as a way of solving this problem.
The parcel is bordered by the Route 9 northbound Exit 1 off-ramp, Essex Road, Floral Park Road, and the northbound lanes of Route 9.
It has been owned by the DOT as a right-of-way since the construction of Route 9 in the late 1960’s.
Since June 23, 2006, Lamont Landings has been leasing the property from the DOT for $2,300 a month, said Kevin Nursick, a DOT spokesman.
Nursick said the DOT has allowed Lamont Landings to make changes to the property.
The property consists largely of a grassy field with one large gravel area, a chain link fence to prevent drivers from turning into the lot from the off-ramp based on a DOT recommendation, and the installation of a small sign that reads “Vinnie’s Overflow Parking”.
Lamont Landings is interested in improving the property and has submitted plans to the Planning and Zoning Commissions for a 61-space gravel parking lot with concrete wheel stops and angled crosswalks across Essex Road.
According to Planning Commission minutes, management said the lot would be mostly used for valet parking.
Both commissions approved the plan with conditions.
The Planning Commission recommended sufficient lighting and landscaping along the road be added.
A five foot wide sidewalk made of bituminous concrete was recommended by the Zoning Commission.
Zoning Chair Madeleine Fish encouraged the applicant to have an employee direct pedestrians across the street at busy times until they become accustomed to the lot.
The restaurant and the state entered into negotiations regarding a five-year lease with options for additional five-year options in early 2006 before the state decided in an internal review they had no need for the property.
Selectman Bill Peace, a former DOT employee, said such an internal review allows other state departments to express an interest in the property.
If they do not express an interest, Peace said, the town the property is in is given an opportunity to acquire it.
At the August 3 Board of Selectmen meeting, Jay Nkonkoi, a representative of Vinnie’s Fish House, said the state was looking to sell the property and asked for the town’s help.
The Town of Old Saybrook received a letter dated Dec. 22 from DOT Rights of Way Administrator Richard Allen stating that the property was for sale and asking the town if they were interested.
The Board of Selectmen authorized Pace to sign an agreement that would transfer the property to the town momentarily and then to the restaurant.
Peace said this allows the town to place a “first right of refusal” easement on the property if restaurant ownership changes, costing the town $1 and attorney’s fees.
If ownership changed to a use non-compatible with the neighborhood, the parcel would become town property and the restaurant owner could not use it to meet parking requirements, Peace said.
If restaurant ownership changes and is compatible, the town would allow that owner to own the parcel, Peace said.
After the easement is placed on the property, Peace said, Lamont Landings will purchase the property from the state at a fair market value.
Peace said the easement is important for the town since the restaurant abuts three residential properties.
“If the town is able to help protect a residential environment, then to me the town has that responsibility,”
Selectwoman Velma Thomas said, adding, “It may not be the present owner but a future owner may not have the same values and concerns for the consideration of residents abutting the property.”
The transaction satisfies some residents “desire to add the property to the tax rolls,” Peace said, adding he believes a parking lot is the best way to utilize the property.
Pace believes the parcel will remain a lot since it would not meet setback regulations for the construction of a building.
The town’s Tax Assessor’s Office confirmed it had no records showing the property’s assessed value.
Both the state DOT and Lamont Landings performed assessments on the property and the Board of Selectmen’s Office is awaiting results.
Peace predicts closing on the property could be as late as April 2007.