OLD LYME — The Roger Tory Peterson Estuary Center, a local affiliate of the statewide Connecticut Audubon Society, has begun planning and discussions with the town on a new 3000–4000 square foot center on a recently-purchased 1.1 acre undeveloped lot at 314 Ferry Road in Old Lyme.
The site, in a residential area near the mouth of Connecticut River, adjoins 16 acres of town-owned open space and state-owned property, potentially allowing visitors access to hiking trails, and to the waterfront at Ferry Landing State Park.
“We are rapidly expanding beyond the scope of our current facility in the storefront next to the Big Y,” explained Claudia Weicker, the chair of the RTP Estuary Center. “[The current location] is not perfect for what we do, nor is it representative of what a nature center can be.”
The new building will give staff more space to work and hold meetings, and better allow the center to host educational workshops, said Weicker.
“We would hope to rehabilitate our own property and get rid of the invasive species that are there and create a place that is filled with native species,” Weicker said. “Our focus will be on education, research and advocacy related to the environment.”
In a preliminary discussion of the plan at a May 28 meeting of the Inland Wetlands and Watercourses Commission, RTP Estuary Center vice chair John Forbis said that after considering several other locations, they had settled on the Ferry Road location because the “property has great access to the river, estuary, town dock, open space and a beach.” Forbis said that they “would also like to create a walking trail that would tie in the education building and the DEEP building,” according to minutes of the meeting.
Forbis also stated that the center would ask for a special permit under local zoning regulations allowing for philanthropic, educational, and recreational uses in a residential area.
Planning and zoning
“The town of Old Lyme has a zoning regulation that allows philanthropic organizations to open up centers in residential areas with a special permit that is approved by the zoning commission and subject to a public hearing,” explained Keith Rosenfeld, the land use coordinator for Old Lyme. The proposed Ferry Road location is currently zoned rural residential (RU40).
In the special permit application, the RTP Estuary Center must demonstrate how the center will be used for educational or recreational purposes, and conform to the residential neighborhood, Rosenfeld said.
Special permits are subject to Section 13B.4.4 of Old Lyme zoning regulations governing the character of the development. “The location, type, character and extent of the Use and of any Building or other Structure and site development in connection therewith shall be in harmony with and conform to the appropriate and orderly development of the Town and the neighborhood and shall not hinder or discourage the appropriate development and Use of adjacent property or impair the value thereof.”
Two months after the $200,000 purchase of the property was finalized, the planning for the new center is still in the very early stages. The RTP Estuary Center has just begun meeting with engineers and architects, Weicker said.
“We are very, very early in the process right now. There are engineering studies that have to be conducted and so many of our decisions will result from the outcomes of those studies,” Weicker said. “We are talking about many months until any plan is finalized.”
At the May 28 meeting, RTP Estuary Center board member, Nell Twining assured the Commission that “the hope is to design a building that is both non-offensive to the residential neighbors but looks like it belongs on the street but very open to the view of the pond and wetland,” according to minutes of the meeting. Twining said that although various architects completed “rough sketches … nothing is finalized at this point.”
Center director Alisha Milardo confirmed to CT Examiner staff by telephone that Centerbrook Architects had been chosen for the project. The firm is known regionally for its designs of the Thompson Exhibition Building at the Mystic Seaport Museum, and the Krieble Gallery at the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme.
Twining discussed approvals for a parking area, which Inland Wetlands and Watercourses Commission member Evan Griswold said would depend on the slope and runoff into the nearby wetland, and any buffering used.
A site visit by commission members is planned before any clearing on the property, but commission member “Gary Gregory stated he had no issue with the trails being constructed prior to the submission of a formal application,” according to the minutes.
Reaching out to nearby residents
Claudia Weicker said that the organization had already met once with current Ferry Road residents and plans to remain in contact with them throughout the planning and construction process to make sure that their concerns about the planned construction are met.
“Right after we purchased the property I wrote to the neighbors and we understood that they may have concerns,” Weicker said.
On June 27, a group of residents did meet with the organization at their Halls Road office. According to Weicker, there was frustration on both sides, mainly due to the fact that the planning is at an early stage.
“The upshot of the meeting is as we move through this process we will remain in touch with the residents,” Weicker said.
Residents express concerns
Already 27 residents with houses nearby on Ferry Road and Sandpiper Point Road have signed a petition opposing the project. Several reached out to the Connecticut Examiner to express bewilderment about first hearing of the proposal in what they described as a nondescript mailing just a month ago after the land had already been purchased.
A group of nine residents asked to meet with CT Examiner staff in our offices on Monday to raise a variety of concerns and questions — and a sense that the early numbers did not yet add up. For example, how could the parking be for no more than 12 spaces when the proposed auditorium would seat 40, one resident claimed to have been told.
Others focused on the word “center,” wondering what exactly would be planned for the structure. They say they have been assured that the center would not be hosting school programs, and did not require bus access, but they questioned what was intended for a building that could reach 4000 square feet.
The group expressed concerns familiar to projects planned in residential areas: traffic and noise, delivery trucks, overflow parking, sight lines, light pollution, and property values.
Patrick Gingrass said the site would not provide enough room for emergency vehicles to turn around.
“It does seem antithetical to the mission of what they are trying to do … there’s more discovery needed and more facts,” thought Alex Strekel.
“Maybe Halls Road is a good place to put it,” said David Henderson.
Ned Farmer agreed, noting that a building designed by a prominent architectural firm would make “quite a centerpiece” for Halls Road.
The group said they were weighing their options, including hiring legal counsel.