Milford cooking school gets planners’ OK

MILFORD >> The Planning and Zoning Board has approved a zone text change and site plan for a recreational cooking school that is embraced by many in the Walnut Beach business community.

The Fig Cooking School will move from Hamden to 42 Naugatuck Ave., near the beach. The second floor, at 35 Park Ave., will remain a residential unit. The Hamden school will close.

School owner Heide Lang has been trying for about two years to open in Milford, but while many in the business community love the concept, a group of local preservationists fought hard against Lang’s proposal to buy the city-owned Stowe Farm Barn at another location and open there.

“I couldn’t be happier! We have wonderful plans for this space, and we just can’t wait to make it a reality,” Lang said. “I am so excited to bring our innovative classes and creative food to Milford.”

Lang said she would love to open in August since the location is “barely two blocks from the water,” but that will depend on the construction schedule.

There was much discussion among board members about whether the Corridor Design Development District 2 zone should be changed to allow the recreational cooking school, or whether it should be considered under the existing business zone or constituted a special use.

Lang’s attorney, Kevin J. Curseaden, said he was seeking a zone regulation change because the use was neither a formal school — because there would no degrees or formal certificates conferred — and it isn’t a restaurant, although there will be eating.

He said characterizing it just a business doesn’t work because there are so many unique components.

Board member John L. Grant persisted the cooking school should fall under the current regulation as a business, but other board members disagreed in the end. Although Grant said he welcomed the concept of Lang’s business, he voted against both the zone text change and the site plan.

Part of the zone text change to allow a recreational cooking school requires 1,000 feet minimum of floor area — about the size the school would be — as opposed to the 2,000 square feet required for a restaurant. The new zone text also waives the minimum requirement from other establishments that sell alcohol.

“It’s not as intense a use as a restaurant,” Curseaden said.

City Planner David Sulkis said the use is so different from anything that exists that it needed definition through a zone text change in case enforcement issues arise.

Lang told the board the business will mainly be about recreational cooking classes, team-building events, including for corporations, and in summer, it will be providing box lunches to be brought to Walnut Beach for beachgoers.

There will also be an outdoor patio and special events.

Lang said the busiest time of year for her business is fall and winter, when other beach area businesses slow down. Area business owners said it will help their foot traffic.

City Economic Development Director Julie Nash spoke strongly in favor, saying it’s a “great project” and “makes sense for the city.”

Walnut Beach Creamery owner Susan Patrick also spoke in favor, saying Lang has been coming to Walnut Beach Association meetings for a year.

Business owner Elizabeth Wright said the cooking school will bring foot traffic during the slowest business months.

“This is perfect,” she said. “It’s part of the cultural climate of Walnut Beach.”

Lang originally hoped to buy and renovate the Stowe Farm Barn on Stowe Avenue, but Milford Citizens to Save Stowe Park fought that plan. There was a lot of debate about whether the barn is in sound condition.