Old Lyme (Credit: OpenStreetMap)

Planning and Zoning Candidates Draw Sharp Lines in Old Lyme

in Elections/Old Lyme/Planning & Zoning

OLD LYME — In the last several weeks, three candidates for the Planning Commission and three for the Zoning Commission individually discussed their reasons for running and their goals for the town during phone interviews with CT Examiner. 

Out of the eight total candidates across the two commissions, two Democrats and four Republicans responded to CT Examiner’s request for phone interviews and answered questions about the future development of the town. 

Planning Commission — Ross and Klose

Democratic candidate and incumbent alternate Alexander Klose, is competing with incumbent board member Steven Ross, a Republican, for a seat on the Town of Old Lyme Planning Commission.

CT Examiner spoke with Ross on October 10 about his candidacy. Klose did not respond to numerous requests for an interview. 

Ross, who has been a member of the commission for 22 years and previously served on the Town of Hebron Planning Commission for five years, said there are a number of  keys to being a good commissioner, including being fair, respecting property owner rights and representing the people who elected you.

“What I try to do as a Planning Commission member is use commonsense and respect the rights of property owners. We have a large number of regulations on both the planning and zoning side that complicate anything to do with land use and my feeling is that the least complicated we can make it the better,” he said. “By making it too complicated, you just drive costs up and it’s not fair to the property owners. It seems a lot of times these regulations go overboard and they’re not keeping the property owners’ rights in mind.” 

Ross said that development in Old Lyme should be consistent with the existing Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD) and “continue to maintain the good lifestyle and the beauty of the town.”

The Sound View Beach area and the surrounding area on Shore Road, he said, was the one exception. “Looking toward the future, I’d like to see that area of town improve. It is one of the major roads through town and in the summer a very busy one and it’s a shame it’s so blighted with rundown properties.”

The commission will update and revise the POCD this coming year and Ross said he wants to allow property owners at risk from rising sea levels and beach erosion to be able to reinforce seawalls and raise homes based on FEMA regulations.  

“As a land use commissioner, I feel we have to resist the incursions that the state makes when they’re not reasonable,” Ross said. “We need to not just blindly accept what the state imposes on our town. We live here, not them.”

“Some of this crosses over into zoning, but from a planning standpoint I think we need to get it moving and offer suggestions,” he said. “These beachfront properties are important to the town, they’re part of the character of the town, and we need to protect the property owners so that they can continue to use their properties.”

Ross also disagreed with the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection mandate for sewering the beach communities, which was based on a general standard of density rather than environmental testing. 

“As a land use commissioner, I feel we have to resist the incursions that the state makes when they’re not reasonable,” he said. “We need to not just blindly accept what the state imposes on our town. We live here, not them.”

Planning Commission — Lampos and Thompson

First-time candidate Jim Lampos, a Democrat, is running against Harold Thompson, a Republican, for a five-year term on the Town of Old Planning Commission beginning in 2020. Thompson has chaired the commission since 2000.

Lampos earned an MA in urban planning at the New School for Social Research (now called the New School) and worked on municipal properties in New York City, including Union Square, before moving to Old Lyme with his family in 2005. He grew up in Groton and his parents bought a cottage in Sound View in 1978. 

“We came up here year-round because of the school system and the quality of life. It seemed like a really good place to raise our kids and we built a house and we’ve been very happy being residents of Old Lyme,” he said by phone on September 28. “One of my strengths is I can see things from a lot of different points of view. I’ve done a lot of different things … I’ve thought deeply about these issues and seen mistakes made in towns around us.”

“My personal thoughts would be to try to keep Sound View’s character intact and to not have this sort of runaway development that you see in some other towns and communities,” Lampos said. “Whether we like sewers or not, they are going to be a fact in our future, and we [can] use that opportunity to get some properties rehabilitated, to get better and higher use for existing properties and enhance the character of the neighborhood, and make it a more effective place to live and to work.”

He served on the Hartford Avenue Improvement Committee that oversaw the installation of sidewalks on the lower half of Hartford Avenue. He is currently serving on the Connectivity Grant Committee to put sidewalks on upper end of Hartford Avenue and part of Shore Road. 

“My personal thoughts would be to try to keep Sound View’s character intact and to not have this sort of runaway development that you see in some other towns and communities,” he said. “Whether we like sewers or not, they are going to be a fact in our future, and we [can] use that opportunity to get some properties rehabilitated, to get better and higher use for existing properties and enhance the character of the neighborhood, and make it a more effective place to live and to work.” 

Lampos said there may be a way to address affordable housing without building “large cookie-cutter condos.”

“It may be a mix of things… we can possibly look at the array of housing in town and maybe use some existing housing with landlords,” he said. “I don’t have the answers but I think I can bring some perspective to planning that might be helpful and to work as a team… work with the other people on the commission and work with other commissions.”

He said the scale of Yale Study, which showed a nearly complete rebuild of Halls Road, including constructing mixed-use buildings and demolishing the shopping plaza “seemed to be way out of whack with what the town currently has and what a lot of people are here for, which is a small town atmosphere.” 

“I think that was a shock to a lot of people and since then I think there’s been a healthy dialogue. I think the town’s done the right thing [listening to] what people have to say. Let’s move forward together as a group, as a town, as a team because change will inevitably come.”

Lampos said the clock doesn’t run backwards and change will come whether we like it or not. “It’s good to be prepared for it and it would be good to have an agreement as to what we’d like to see as a town.”

Thompson, who spoke with CT Examiner on October 31, said some of the Planning Commission’s biggest challenges in the coming years have to do with zoning regulations. 

“One of our biggest challenges right now is some adjustment of our zoning regulations. We’ve talked about affordable housing and the fact that we don’t have young people in town, but we don’t have housing that most people can afford,” Thompson said. “We have a number of people who have in-law apartments that are not legal, but the reason they’re not legal is we’ve never provided them with an avenue to legalize [the apartments] — that would be one of the things we need to look at.” 

Zoning impediments have prevented areas of growth and development in the town, he said. 

“It’s very interesting that electric cars are here to stay and there was someone who wanted to put in chargers on Halls Road and Zoning shut it down. That gas station on Halls Road made two or three attempts to go before zoning to say they wanted to buy the property and expand the store … people should be allowed to invest in properties and improve properties and make a go of it, but Zoning just doesn’t want to see any changes and they’ve been very clear about that in some cases,” he said. 

He said he was in favor of sewer avoidance for the town as a whole, partly because of the difficulty and expense of installing sewers into underlying ledge that covers much of the area and partly because of the need to replenish the aquifer.  

“You get concerned about the balance of nature, in other words you’d be pumping millions of gallons of water somewhere and I don’t think the aquifer system in Lyme or Old Lyme can tolerate anything like that,” he said. “We’ve been looking at water resources and that’s a critical issue.”  

The town needs to address the impact of sea level rise in the town’s low-lying areas and plan for elevating roads and establishing escape routes, he said.

“These are a lot of questions and ‘what ifs.’ We need to start thinking ahead a little bit more,” said Thompson.

According to Thompson, the proposed changes on Halls Road could result in business owners leaving Old Lyme due to increased rents. He also was concerned that with plans for mixed-use, residents would use a portion of the parking spaces in the shopping plaza, which could be a problem on the weekends when vacationers visit the town. 

“It’s like a hidden agenda here because I don’t know how they think they’re going to do this,” he said. 

“Jane [Cable] and Jane [Marsh] said, ‘Elevated houses are ugly, we don’t like them.’ The homeowner may have to go from a two-story to a one-story because he can’t elevate his house,” Thompson said. “Sometimes we get a thing from zoning that they don’t want someone to elevate their property because that would impede on the rights of the neighbor — so you’re giving away the rights of the property owner to protect the rights of the neighbor and to me that doesn’t make any sense.” 

The town needs to “let people develop properties because times change and people change,” referring especially to the vacant buildings and businesses along Shore Road, he said. “We’re not using the properties that we have and then we have zoning coming along and saying you can’t put anything up in case it’s an eyesore.”

He said he went to zoning months ago to discuss changing the zoning regulations for maximum height, especially along the shoreline, so that homeowners could comply with FEMA requirements by elevating their houses. 

“Jane [Cable] and Jane [Marsh] said, ‘Elevated houses are ugly, we don’t like them.’ The homeowner may have to go from a two-story to a one-story because he can’t elevate his house,” Thompson said. “Sometimes we get a thing from zoning that they don’t want someone to elevate their property because that would impede on the rights of the neighbor — so you’re giving away the rights of the property owner to protect the rights of the neighbor and to me that doesn’t make any sense.” 

Thompson encouraged the public to come to Planning Commission meetings to talk about land use issues. 

“We’re very receptive to listening to people, we’re open minded. We haven’t forgotten that we are public servants and where we can, we need to support the public — but not impede the rights of property owners, the homeowners, they’ve got rights too,” he said. 

Zoning Commission — Gemme and Tinnerello

For a five-year term on the Zoning Commission that begins in 2019, incumbent Democrat Harvey Gemme is running against newcomer Republican Tammy Tinnerello. Gemme did not respond to requests for an interview. 

Tinnerello, who sells real estate with Coldwell Banker, is on the board of the Lyme Youth Services Bureau (LYSB). She also served on the board of Safe Futures and as board secretary for the Child & Family Agency. 

“I have lived in Old Lyme for about 16 years. We moved here from New London basically because it was a small community and that’s what we were looking for,” said Tinnerello in October 23 interview with CT Examiner.

Zoning issues can arise with real estate clients and the commission often turns people down before listening to the situation, she said. 

“They come back and say we can’t do this or they won’t let us do that,” she said. “I always felt as if people were told no before they were told yes right off the bat.”

She said she wanted to improve the commission’s communication with the public and rebuild a sense of community in the wake of the withdrawn Hope Partnership affordable housing project. 

“In this community, it’s very divisive now because of what went on with the housing project … and I think that if everybody knew the facts ahead of time that we would have a more positive community. I think more people just need to be aware of what’s going on,” she said. 

The zoning process could be streamlined for simple projects, she said. 

“I’ve sat in zoning meetings and there was someone who wanted to do a 20 by 20 little bump-out on their house and it was ridiculous that they had to pay an attorney and two architects and take time out just to get this little thing approved,” she said. “The process is so lengthy and tedious and costly for these homeowners in town and a lot of them are just basically looking to do something small. Sometimes you can’t do it, sometimes the answer will be no, but let’s try to be fair for everybody and try to make it work for them.” 

“A smiling face, a welcoming face — people shouldn’t be afraid to go zoning to get something,” Tinnerello said. “People should be able to go and present their case without feeling intimidated.’ 

Tinnerello said her goal was to make the process fairer to everyone, assuming the best of intentions by all parties. 

“I don’t think there are too many people who are going through zoning who are trying to hinder the community. I think everyone has good intentions and sometimes it just might be the way somebody is presenting it to zoning,” she said. “I don’t think they should be so quick to turn everything down.” 

The atmosphere at zoning meetings should be friendly and supportive, she said. 

“A smiling face, a welcoming face — people shouldn’t be afraid to go zoning to get something,” she said. “People should be able to go and present their case without feeling intimidated.’ 

Zoning Commission — Cable and Miller

For a five-year term on the Zoning Commission that begins in 2020, incumbent Democrat Jane Cable, chair of the commission, will compete with Republican Mike Miller, a first-time candidate.

Cable has served on the commission since 2006. She emphasized the need to plan for the future and to engage in dialogue no matter how difficult the topic.

“When you get elected to a position, particularly one that needs some planning for the future, I think you do the people who voted for you, and those you represent, a disservice not to plan,” she said in a September 27 interview with CT Examiner. “Change is going to happen and failing to plan for it makes the situation worse. I think you let the people you represent down if you don’t discuss it and it may be that everybody’s against what you want to do but at least you have the conversation.”

Regarding affordable housing, the project on Neck Road is often referred to as the town’s plan, but it was the plan of a developer — an important distinction, Cable said. Old Lyme is obligated to comply with the state mandate on affordable housing and must follow the guidelines for turning down a project, she said. 

“The policy is taken out of our hands because the state declared that towns will have 10 percent affordable housing and the definition is the state’s definition of what affordable housing is and it varies from town to town because they take into account the per-capita income, so we don’t have a choice in it,” she said. “But I will tell you that when a town denies an application for affordable housing — the less affordable housing the town has — the better its reason for a denial better be.” 

She said the Halls Road project is not fully formulated, but when it is, the Zoning Commission would discuss it.

“It’s not our call — when they made a presentation to us, we said come to us when you have a plan and we’ll discuss what part zoning can take in it. The commission that should be participating is the planning commission,” she said. 

The proposed shoreline text amendment, changing the coastal jurisdiction line from 50 to 100 feet, was the idea of Zoning Commission member Jane Marsh, Cable said. 

“We said since sea levels are rising and FEMA amends its declarations every couple of years, instead of changing the zoning regs every time the water level rises or falls, we made a process for people to come in … They come to us with their measurements and we say yes or we say no,” she said. “We didn’t want the zoning regs changed constantly.” 

“I don’t see a need to change what drew all of us to live in Old Lyme, which was its beauty, its green space, its vibrant art history and presence. Why would we change it, why would I want to change it?” Cable said. “It’s not like I moved here and want to slam the door behind me, it drew all of us here for over a century. Why would we mess with perfection? It’s almost perfect.”

Cable said it’s time to start talking about sea level rise “and my experience is people will not talk about hypothetical situations — there has to be an application in-process, and then people express their opinions.”

“That’s what public hearings are for, but people rarely will talk about situation unless there’s a live application or unless some action is contemplated,” she said. “This conversation should have happened years ago.” 

When former chair Tom Risom left the zoning commission in 2006, Cable said he told her, “I’m leaving it up to you. What the town looks like is in your hands.”

“He was right and I don’t see a need to change what drew all of us to live in Old Lyme, which was its beauty, its green space, its vibrant art history and presence. Why would we change it, why would I want to change it?” she said. “It’s not like I moved here and want to slam the door behind me, it drew all of us here for over a century. Why would we mess with perfection? It’s almost perfect.”

Miller, who moved to Old Lyme in 2001 with his wife and two sons, spoke with CT Examiner on October 24. Now a public defender for the state, he previously practiced law in New Jersey, representing clients before zoning commissions as well as town zoning commissions. 

“I have a lot of land use experience, it’s familiar territory for me,” said Miller, who is also a veteran and serves on the town’s Police Services Options Committee. “I understand what it’s all about and have practical experience representing clients before commissions and representing commissions. 

Miller said the two experiences he had with Old Lyme’s Zoning Commission “left a very very sour taste” in his mouth, because of what he said was a lack transparency on the commission’s part and the way the commission treated audience members. 

“It just seemed to me that they were pushing this affordable housing [project] and they were making it sound as if the people against it were like monsters — that we don’t want affordable housing in the town, that we’re not good people,” Miller said.

“If they don’t seem to agree with what people say, the commission just seems very condescending — that was not my experience representing [clients] — it just didn’t seem very neighborly or friendly,” he said. 

He said the proposed affordable housing location on Neck Road was “absolutely horrible” but there hadn’t been room to disagree without being labeled.

“It just seemed to me that they were pushing this affordable housing [project] and they were making it sound as if the people against it were like monsters — that we don’t want affordable housing in the town, that we’re not good people,” he said.

Other information proffered during the public hearing was untrue, he said.

“They said we have a 10 percent obligation to have affordable housing — that’s absolutely not true, the affordable housing statute has to do with development … It was just an absolute lie that they told that we had to have 10 percent affordable housing or we’re going to suffer some type of consequence from the state and to me it was just completely dishonest that they did that,” he said. 

He said there were also undisclosed conflicts of interest, such as First Selectman Bonnie Reemsnyder holding a seat on the board of Hope Partnership and Selectman Mary Jo Nosal and her husband’s donations to Hope Partnership.

“It was just a huge conflict of interest and none of that was disclosed at the time. It was such a high level of dishonesty that it was shocking to me,” he said. 

The commission’s proposed Tidal Waters Protection amendment has some of the same characteristics, he said. 

“There’s such a lack of transparency and such misrepresentation by the Zoning Commission, especially its chairwoman, Jane Cable, whom I hope to replace,” he said. “But, to me, and to most people in the audience, it was apparent that they were all upset about one particular development on Shore Road, they didn’t like what that man is building and so they [made] this knee-jerk regulation.” 

Miller said he also objected to Reemsnyder and Nosal’s statements at the selectmen’s debate about the negative impacts of sea level rise on the grand list when NASA statistics showed sea level rise “is about 3.3 millimeters a year, which is about one tenth of one inch.

“So why this state of emergency in town that we have to all of a sudden roll back this line by 50 feet? I think it’s pretty apparent they’re pissed off at this guy for building a property that they didn’t like and now their commission is trying to gain control of all coastal and riverfront property in town — this is basically a land grab,” he said. “They are dishonest about this legislation, they are lying to us.”

People who come before the commission deserve to be treated with dignity, he said. 

“When people came to speak, Jane Cable treated them like morons, like she is some expert in the field and everyone speaking in front of her just wasn’t smart enough for her,” he said. “I really did not like the way she treated the citizens who came forward to speak. That is not who I am — I deal with people all the time in very stressful situations. People deserve respect, people go to these commissions because their property is at stake — properties that they worked their butts off to pay their mortgages and their taxes and they should be treated with dignity, they should not be lied to.”

The town needs to look at realistic options for zoning, such as accessory dwelling units, as well as making zoning friendlier to property owners who want to improve their homes, said Miller.  

“It’s about cleaning up and changing the direction of where we’re going, trying to create more transparency, better relations with people appearing before them, looking at some more reasonable options for folks to improve their property — I think that will pretty much fill up a term if I get elected,” he said.