Cobb’s Mill café: Weston P&Z tables vote

The Cobb's Mill Inn overlooking the Cobb's Mill waterfall wants to put in a café.

The Cobb’s Mill Inn overlooking the Cobb’s Mill waterfall wants to put in a café.

The Planning and Zoning Commission is divided about an application to run a coffee shop at the Cobb’s Mill Inn.

At the commission’s regular meeting on Monday, March 4, a sense was that half the commission would favor the application while the other half was opposed.

Because one member, Joe Limone, was absent, the commission decided to table an official vote and continue its discussion.

Cobb’s Mill owner Drew Friedman applied for a zoning permit to do interior work on the former gift shop building on property at 12 Old Mill Road, in order to create a coffee shop-style café.

The shop would be called J.K. Café at Cobb’s Mill Inn in honor of the late son of Elayne Cassara, Mr. Friedman’s business associate. It would be open for breakfast and lunch, serving such items as coffee, pastries, soups, sandwiches, and paninis.

The café would open around 7 a.m., seven days a week, and would have seating for approximately 35 to 40 people. Cooking would be done in the kitchen at the main restaurant, while coffee, cold sandwiches and paninis would be prepared in the café. It was described as both a “grab and go” kind of shop and a place where customers could sit, linger and use wi-fi.

This was P&Z’s second discussion on the issue. It previously accepted the application and heard a presentation from Mr. Friedman and Ms. Cassara on Feb. 4.

The main building on the property houses La Roue Elayne at Cobb’s Mill Inn, an historic restaurant that was once an actual gristmill. The proposed café would occupy space at the front of the property that once housed a gift shop.

Mr. Friedman explained that the gift shop space, which has been closed for the past few years, was also used for a time for private dining parties. He said previous management told him it was the most profitable space on the property when it was in full operation.

Because the main building is old and large, it is very expensive to run, Ms. Cassara said. She said income from the new café was important for the business’s survival.

The property is classified by zoning regulations as a “non-conforming commercial business” located in a residential zone. Its use as a restaurant predates zoning and is protected by state statute.

However, there are limitations placed on non-conforming properties. Their use is allowed to intensify, but not to expand.

What exactly constitutes an intensification as opposed to an expansion is the subject of case law. So at the commission’s meeting on Feb. 4, members voted to ask for an opinion from town counsel as to whether the café proposal would be considered an intensification or an expansion.

Legal opinion

At Monday’s meeting, P&Z Chairman Jane Connolly said the commission had received an opinion from town counsel but the contents were “privileged” for the commission’s deliberations, so the opinion would not be shared with the applicants.

Commissioner Stephan Grozinger said he favored letting the applicants know what was in the attorney’s opinion, but the commission decided to ask town counsel if the opinion was protected by attorney-client privilege.

However, the commissioners did discuss some of the points in the opinion. They said it relied on a case from 2012, Woodbury Donuts v. the Woodbury Zoning Board of Appeals, which upheld a zoning board’s decision to deny an application for a Dunkin’ Donuts shop because it was considered an expansion of the non-conforming use of a previous restaurant on the site.

In the Woodbury Donuts case, the Appellate Court confirmed the trial court’s findings that a year-round Dunkin’ Donuts franchise was “significantly different in character” from the previous seasonal use of a former restaurant, and was therefore an “impermissible expansion of the previous non-conforming use.”

In reaching its decision, the Appellate Court said a “change in the character of a use constituted an unlawful extension of the prior use.”

P&Z discussed whether a café in the former gift shop would change the character of the previous use of the building. Mr. Friedman said the building for the proposed café was used for parties where food was served. When the building was a gift shop it also sold candy and food products, he said.

Effect on neighborhood

Another issue is the effect the café would have on the neighborhood. The Appellate Court said that was another relevant factor to take into account as to whether a use is an intensification or an expansion.

The applicants said the café would be open daily around 7 a.m., which is peak rush hour with heavy traffic on Old Mill Road. Ms. Cassara said Cobb’s Mill Inn customers have told her they would love to have something like this coffee shop in Weston.

There is no parking in front of the proposed café, so customers would need to park across the street and walk back and forth. Commissioner Don Saltzman said he would like to see a copy of a traffic study that was done by the Police Commission on Old Mill Road for a recent tree clearing project to help determine what impact the café might have on traffic and safety.

While there was no official vote, an unofficial “sense of the meeting” was taken to see where the commissioners stood on the application. They were equally divided.

Britta Lerner, Pierre Ratté, and Mr. Grozinger favored granting the application. Ms. Connolly, Mr. Saltzman, and Ken Edgar were opposed.

With one commissioner, Mr. Limone, absent because he was out of the country on business, the commission decided to schedule a special meeting when Mr. Limone was back in order to further discuss and vote on the application.

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