Zoning reg change paves way for cooking school at Walnut Beach

New zoning regulations are allowing The Fig Cooking School to open its doors at 42 Naugatuck Ave., following Planning and Zoning Board (P&Z) approval at its March 21 meeting.

Cooking School owner Heide Lang had previously pursued a plan to purchase the city-owned Stowe Barn, 68 Stowe Ave., to use as the cooking school site, an idea that was supported by Walnut Beach area business owners and other residents. That plan never came to fruition, in part due to opposition from a group of residents opposed to the sale of city-owned open space.

The new location is within a strip of businesses along Naugatuck Avenue, which includes a deli, package store and art shop.

The P&Z board voted 8-1 to amend its zoning regulations, adding the definition for a recreational cooking school, and also adding this as a permitted use in the Corridor Design Development District 2 Devon Center – Naugatuck Avenue (CDD-2), provided the location has a minimum floor area of 1,000 square feet.

In a separate vote, the board voted unanimously to allow the school to operate at 42 Naugatuck Ave., which has a second floor apartment with an address of 35 Park Ave. in the CDD-2 zone.

The new definition reads, “School, recreational cooking – Any business or school devoted to education in the art and science of cooking and food preparation operated for the compensation or gain of its owner or operator where students are assembled for the purpose of demonstration or instruction in hands-on recreational cooking and baking classes for non-professional chefs. No educational degrees or certifications are awarded. Classes are directed at and designed for home cooks or amateur enthusiasts.”

The recreational cooking school may include other uses such as hosting special events, theme dinners, team building private events, occasional cook book author signings or classes, occasional guest chef cooking classes, take-out items, snacks, and meals, occasional restaurant style service, private parties, and catering.

Attorney Kevin Curseaden made the presentation on behalf of Park Mission LLC, which lists Lang of Hamden, as member. Lang describes herself on the school’s website as “founder and chief instructor.” The school’s first and only other location is in Hamden.

Curseaden said the school’s focus is “fun and recreation,” commenting, “It’s not a commercial cooking school where someone gets a degree.” He said that a commercial kitchen designer completed the plans for the facility.

As part of the regulation update, Curseaden requested a minimum size of 1,000 square feet for recreational cooking schools, which is half the minimum required size in Milford for a restaurant.

“It is not as intense of a use as a restaurant,” said Curseaden.

Speaking in favor of the regulations update, City Planner David B. Sulkis said the use did not clearly fall into any particular category within the existing zoning regulations.

“I think they are a good regulation for the type of use being proposed,” said Sulkis.

Board member John Grant, who is the chairman of the board’s Regulations Subcommittee, was the lone P&Z member to vote against the proposal. Grant said, “I like the concept,” but questioned the need for new regulations.

Grant said there already is a definition in the regulations for a school or business operated for compensation or gain by its owner. He said he thought the school could be approved as a special use under the existing zoning regulations.

“This is not really a school; it’s a business,” said Grant.

Speaking in favor of the change, board member Richard Lutz said, “You can’t classify it as a restaurant because it’s too small.” Lutz said the definition is “a little broader” than just a school.

Commenting on Grant’s idea of a special exception, Sulkis said the board gives such approvals when the use exists in the regulations, but not in that particular zone. However, Sulkis said the cooking school proposal is a unique definition that does not fit neatly into any category in the zoning regulations. By adding the definition to the zoning regulations, it is “creating standards for this use,” said Sulkis.

Curseaden said this is different than a restaurant because it is not a daily operation, but is an “on demand,” type of business. He said the main difference is that, “They are going to be teaching cooking classes.”

Lang said she has “spent the better part of two years looking for a new home for the Fig Cooking School.” She said she is expanding her business because business is good and commented, “I am turning people away.”

She said she mostly teaches recreational cooking classes and conducts team-building events.  Lang said these are three-hour events with an average class size of 12-14 people; some classes may have 25 people. Her busiest season is September to May with most classes taking place during the evening.

During the summer, she said she would like to conduct a take-out service in which people place an order on the Internet, and she delivers a food box to patrons at the beach.

“It will depend on market demand,” said Lang.

Board member Jim Quish offered his support for the proposal saying, “I think it’s a great idea. This building has been empty for a long time…I think it will be huge asset to the West Shore.”

In discussing the site plan, Curseaden said the interior of the first floor would be remodeled with a center kitchen and tables toward the front side. There will be an exterior patio with six tables and 18 seats facing Park Avenue.

Park Mission LLC purchased the 0.07-acre property for $215,000 on July 15, 2016. The first floor has 1,205 square feet of space, while the second floor apartment has 1,235 square feet of space.

Five people spoke in favor of the regulation change and no one expressed opposition. The site plan was not a public hearing, and therefore had no opportunity for public comment.

Julie Nash, Milford’s economic and community development director, said, “I am a huge fan of Heidi. I am a huge fan of this project.”

Susan Patrick of 660 Gulf Street, owner of the Walnut Beach Creamery, said she was previously president of the Walnut Beach Arts and Business Association, and said area businesses are overwhelmingly in support of the project. Patrick said, “I can’t think of anyone who would do a better job of opening a business there.”

Elizabeth Wright of 20 South Street, said she is a former chairperson of the P&Z and has a business in the Walnut Beach area. Wright said the school would help bring foot traffic to the area.

“It is part of the cultural climate that is Walnut Beach,” said Wright.