The Day

Old Lyme zoning panel moves to reinforce control over developmen­t


— The Zoning Commission this week moved to affirm what one member described as “surgical” control over local developmen­t with votes on two projects that could disrupt the status quo in this shoreline town rich with history.

The commission on Monday rejected one proposal for the creation of a cultural overlay district that would allow Lyme Academy of Arts and its three nonprofit neighbors on Lyme Street to obtain approval more easily for ventures — including operating a cafe and providing guest housing for artists or scientists — in an otherwise residentia­l zone.

The proposal since last spring has been decried by Lyme Street residents and members of the Historic District Commission worried it would disrupt the largely residentia­l atmosphere of Lyme Street to benefit a “privileged four.” They complained the language was too rushed, vague and rife with potential for unintended consequenc­es.

The commission agreed to take over for the rejected applicants by exploring on its own terms ways to update zoning regulation­s to meet the intent of the nonprofit organizati­ons while addressing concerns of the neighbors.

Commission member Jane Marsh acknowledg­ed the art school and other cultural organizati­ons have made convincing arguments that the change would help the nonprofits remain financiall­y viable. But she said she wanted to use traditiona­l zoning techniques — not the newer, alternativ­e overlay framework — that includes specific language applicable to any type of business rather than nonprofits only.

“I just think it needs to be more direct and more surgical and more controlled,” Marsh said of amending the existing zoning regulation­s.

The Lyme Academy applicatio­n was rejected 4-1. The lone vote in favor of the proposal came from Mary Jo Nosal.

Historic District Commission member Carolyn Wakeman on

“Putting residentia­l units on top of commercial obviously is an attractive carrot, and that’s going to keep the commercial district alive.”


Wednesday said the group believes the decision is a “very good thing” but hasn’t yet met to discuss it.

She said she’s grateful the Zoning Commission is going to take more time to study the proposal as well as “the need and appropriat­eness of making zoning changes on Lyme Street.”

Representa­tives of Lyme Academy could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Halls Road overlay district

A separate proposal to encourage the transforma­tion of Halls Road from highway pass-through to a neighborho­od of shops and living spaces was postponed to the commission’s next meeting.

The applicatio­n from the Halls Road Improvemen­ts Committee employed the same alternativ­e overlay technique as the Lyme Academy applicatio­n, but to a different end: giving developers who are willing to follow certain design specificat­ions for certain types of businesses the chance to construct potentiall­y lucrative apartments or condominiu­ms not otherwise allowed on the street.

The Halls Road committee has been working on developing and carrying out its livable-walkable-shoppable vision for the strip-mall heavy stretch since 2015.

Commission­ers did not object to the use of the overlay zone in the Halls Road applicatio­n, but said they wanted to make sure maximum dimensions for each building are included. They said the intent is to ensure the street doesn’t turn into what Marsh described as a “solid wall of storefront­s” and what member Mike Miller called “a Costco-sized building.”

The draft regulation language specifies buildings can be no more than 15 feet from the road, take up no more than 50% of the lot area and be no more than three stories high, among other requiremen­ts. While the draft specifies each retail business can take up no more than 10,000 square feet of a building, it does not provide a maximum square footage or length for the buildings themselves.

“It’s concerning me that we really don’t have much control over the density,” Marsh said.

Commission­ers also noted the lack of a public sewer system and water supply as well as environmen­tal limitation­s due to nearby rivers and wetland areas.

Nosal noted the draft regulation­s were developed over time with input from lawyers, committee members and an engineerin­g firm.

“I feel satisfied that the committee and the people that have reviewed this document, this regulation, has really put it to the test,” Nosal said.

A previous version of the proposal was abruptly withdrawn by First Selectman Tim Griswold more than a year ago to provide time for "a more thorough review."

The Halls Road Improvemen­ts Committee subsequent­ly revised its applicatio­n with what members in a project update called "a more flexible approach" that does not constrain current property owners. Instead of creating a village district where anyone constructi­ng a new building or renovating an existing one would need to conform to the regulation­s, it created the overlay zone that business owners and developers could choose if they wanted to.

Land use coordinato­r Eric Knapp said the Zoning Commission’s attorney, Matthew Willis, has reviewed the proposed regulation.

Miller voiced his support for the overall concept of the Halls Road overlay district and for more time to make sure there are no unforeseen consequenc­es.

He said not doing anything also could have ramificati­ons.

“We have an area that’s almost 95 percent privately owned, and as far as we know none of the private owners want to do anything,” he said.

He said it will be interestin­g to see if the overlay zone is able to lure developers willing to buy into the vision for a more attractive and vibrant village center.

“Putting residentia­l units on top of commercial obviously is an attractive carrot, and that’s going to keep the commercial district alive,” he said.

Halls Road Improvemen­ts Committee Chairwoman Edie Twining after the meeting said she is open to the type of changes discussed by the commission members.

The commission has 65 days from the closing of the public hearing on Jan. 9 to make a decision on the Halls Road applicatio­n.

Knapp, the land-use coordinato­r, said the commission has the authority to modify and approve proposed text without another public hearing “if it fits within the framework of the original proposal and the changes being made do not include new language” outside of the scope of the closed public hearing.

The commission will discuss both the Lyme Street cultural district proposal and the Halls Road proposal at its March 13 meeting.

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