Town of Old Lyme Zoning Commission discusses a new zoning regulation on Monday night (Credit: CT Examiner/Hewitt)

Old Lyme Zoning Commission Proposes Limits on Waterfront Building

in Old Lyme

OLD LYME — The Zoning Commission has proposed an amendment to the Tidal Waters Protection regulation that would increase the setback for all new construction along coastal and riverfront to 100 feet, doubling the current setback of 50 feet.

But more importantly, the new text in section 4.3.7 would prohibit the Zoning Board of Appeals from granting a variance.

“It’s going to be a new philosophy for the Town of Old Lyme and I invite as much input as I can get, and I think the commission members would too, about how people in town feel about it because this is how we try to implement what we believe to be a trend of the coastline advancing on our town and we’ve never done that before” — Town of Old Lyme Zoning Commission secretary, Jane Marsh.

“It’s going to be a new philosophy for the Town of Old Lyme and I invite as much input as I can get, and I think the commission members would too, about how people in town feel about it because this is how we try to implement what we believe to be a trend of the coastline advancing on our town and we’ve never done that before,” said Jane Marsh, secretary of the Zoning Commission, at the commission meeting Monday night where the proposal was introduced.

Part of what precipitated the amendment was a house under construction at 131 Shore Road, Marsh said.

“A house that could have been built further away from water and is positioned rather close to the water, with boulders and very high cement seawall that got backfilled with lots of dirt. A new house is sitting up on top of that dirt on sort of a platform,” she said.

“Why work so hard to make a regulation only to have it varied?” – Town of Old Lyme Zoning Commission chair, Jane Cable.

Marsh said the Zoning Board of Appeals allowed a variance for the house to be built in that location “closer to Black Hall River than otherwise would have been allowed. There is room to build it further back.”

Jane Cable, chair of the commission, questioned the value of creating the Tidal Waters Protection regulations if property owners could appeal for and be granted variances.

“Why work so hard to make a regulation only to have it varied?” asked Cable.

Marsh said regulations were meant to protect citizens from building in flood-prone areas, but “the whole thing requires a lot of analysis on both sides” especially in how cases are handled in the appeals process.

“My question is what happens to us if that 100-foot setback happens because that’s going to basically, from what I’ve been told, make our property unbuildable” – Old Lyme resident, Lisa Steele.

“Because that’s what the Zoning Board of Appeals is — it’s an individual, case-by-case basis. That might sound good but it results in a patchwork of outcomes,” she said. “So, some people get a yes and other people get a no. And that just doesn’t seem like the right way for a town that’s on the coastline with a lot of coastal development — we should be more deliberate about it.”

Lisa Steele, who has owned a lot on Hawkins Road since 2009, told the commission the 100-foot setback would render her property unbuildable. Steele said she had a permit to build but construction never took place and now she and her husband are trying to sell the property.

“My question is what happens to us if that 100-foot setback happens because that’s going to basically, from what I’ve been told, make our property unbuildable,” said Steele.

Under the amendment, Steele could come before the zoning commission to ask for a special exception instead of going before the zoning board of appeals, said Marsh.

“It really is to try to determine what’s going to be done on your property isn’t going to adversely affect neighbors or the wetlands itself,” said Marsh. “This affects everybody who has undeveloped property in town.”

Cable said that the zoning board of appeals is supposed to deal exclusively with a unique problem belonging to a particular piece of property, “but this is a widespread problem just based on advancing water levels.”

Pete Thomas, of 17 Gould Lane, suggested the commission add language concerning coastal or riverine property elevations

“DEEP would like to take this opportunity to applaud the Zoning Commission on this initial revision of Section 4.3 to increase protection of critical coastal resource management areas within the community and addressing the impacts of future sea level rise to people and property” – Karen A. Michaels, an environmental analyst at DEEP.

“All waterfront property is not created equal,” said Thomas. “I think to pen a regulation that is designed to address those properties in a flood zone is right but to have those regulations apply to a property that is far above in elevation.”

The commission received praise for the text amendment from Karen A. Michaels an environmental analyst in the Land and Water Resources Division of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, in an August 5 letter.

“DEEP would like to take this opportunity to applaud the Zoning Commission on this initial revision of Section 4.3 to increase protection of critical coastal resource management areas within the community and addressing the impacts of future sea level rise to people and property,” she wrote.

In a July 20 email, Planning Commission Chairman Harold Thompson asked that the Zoning Commission keep the public hearing open until October so that the Planning Commission would have sufficient time to provide comments on the amendment.

Marsh said she was in favor of keeping the public hearing open so that the Zoning Commission could hear from multiple voices in the community.

“I’m definitely in favor of keeping public hearing open because the comments that we received from the LI Sound Program and DEEP,” she said. “To me it means that we need to give this deep consideration, so I’m welcoming it from any source including the public because this is a major policy step.”

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