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.”
MIKE MILLER, ZONING COMMISSION MEMBER
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.