OLD LYME — The Zoning Commission unanimously tabled its controversial petition Tuesday that would have doubled the setback for new construction along riverfront and coastal properties from 50 to 100 feet, citing the need for more research on the rate and effects of sea level rise.
At the same meeting, the commission unanimously approved Lyme Academy of Fine Arts’ request for permission to lease space for up to five years to the France Foundation, a medical education company. The lease would provide a stream of revenue to help the financially-ailing academy, that lost its accreditation after University of New Haven disaffiliated last summer.
Tidal Waters amendment
At its September 9 meeting, the Zoning Commission introduced a petition to amend section 4.3 Tidal Waters Protection of the town’s zoning regulations. Not only did the amendment propose to increase the coastal and riverfront setback to 100 feet for new construction, but it also would have prohibited the Zoning Board of Appeals from granting a variance — a combination that raised significant public concern, as well as opposition from Planning Commission, Harbor Management, Flood & Erosion Control, and Zoning Board of Appeals.
The proposal was originally introduced by Jane Marsh, secretary of the Zoning Commission, who said part of the impetus for the amendment was to allow residents to come before the commission for a special permit, avoiding the need to prove a hardship before the Zoning Board of Appeals.
A house under construction at 131 Shore Road belonging to Old Lyme resident Ron Swaney partly precipitated the amendment, after the construction received a variance from the Zoning Board of Appeals.
At Tuesday’s meeting, resident Jamie Munson, who owns property at Point O’Woods, said the 100-foot setback represented an arbitrary number that had no scientific backing, adding that elevation was a more relevant measurement. He also said that adding any more regulation would add another “layer of bureaucracy” and would discourage residents from improving their properties.
Data on the rate of sea level rise varies, but the NASA website shows a rate of one-tenth of an inch per year, said resident Mike Miller, who was elected to the Zoning Commission on November 4 for a term that begins November 17, 2020, replacing Jane Cable.
“It just seems if that is driving force — 1 inch every 10 years — then let’s find out what real science is. Maybe we don’t have the problem that’s scaring everybody,” he said.
Commission Chair Jane Cable said town based its numbers on data collected by Fire Marshal David Roberge. An audience member texted Roberge asking for the rate of sea level rise, which was 1 inch in 10 years.
Resident Jonathan Gineo said it wasn’t fair to the community to pass an amendment that would render many properties worthless considering that “we don’t know if [sea level rise] is going to happen or not.”
Bill Ruel, a resident, said the 100-foot setback would decrease the property values for hundreds of homeowners, resulting in lower property taxes for the town. He said a similar amendment in Chester reduced the value of his property, and reduced tax revenue for the town.
Mary McDonald, a realtor for Coldwell Banker, said the amendment would hurt the town’s tax base in a real estate market that was already declining in Connecticut.
“What if someone has building lot and this makes it nonconforming and unbuildable?” she asked.
The amendment could also hurt homeowners along the shoreline who have been waiting for the installation of sewers before moving ahead with home improvements, said resident Beth Cote. She suggested the formation of a committee to study the impact on properties along rivers, lakes, rivers and the shoreline.
After the close of the public hearing, Marsh said she heard “loud and clear” that the 100-foot setback “doesn’t seem satisfactory.”
Through the process of listening to the public at the September 9 and October 15 Zoning Commission meetings, Marsh said she also learned that residents were not opposed to elevating properties along the shoreline, nor were people unhappy about going before the ZBA to receive a variance.
Zoning Alternate Maria Martinez said the commission needed to be clear about why it was amending the text and how it would impact property values.
“We need to socialize this proposal so it’s clearly articulated — the pros and cons — so everyone has clear understanding of who is impacted, the implication on property and tax,” she said. “That’s what I heard people want to know and it’s incumbent on us.”
Marsh said her direction will come from recommendations from DEEP, including recommendations on elevating properties.
“What are the requirements for the maximum and minimum? People are going to ZBA and asking and it’s not a consistent outcome for them. It’s what kind of baseline should be set.”
Lyme Academy of Fine Arts
As part of the approval for the France Foundation’s lease of about 6,000 square feet, or about ⅓ of the academy’s 18,000-square-foot administration building, the commission emphasized the educational rather than commercial use of the space, despite the lack of students on site.
“I don’t want anyone to think we’re creating a commercial use — this fits in under continuing education and resources,” said Marsh.
The France Foundation is a for-profit medical education group based in Old Lyme. The foundation will bring in 14 employees to the site, occupying the “easterly-most portion of the building along the front — the impact will not be visible,” said Attorney Fran Sablone, of Old Lyme, who represented Stacy Miller, president of the France Foundation, and Steve Tagliatela, chairman of the board of Lyme Academy.
Sablone told the commission that leasing part of the administration building will provide needed funds to the newly-independent academy.
“This helps save the academy,” Sablone said. “Fifty-four students have signed up to take some classes just for the fall semester, not accredited but it’s a start. The school is a shadow of what it has been and can be in the future … clearly this will help bridge that gap.”
Students will not visit the France Foundation offices, said Miller.
“We develop education for online. We go to hospitals, no one ever goes to our site,” she said. “We’ve been doing this for 22 years and never had any need for that. That’s not our structure.”
The commission stipulated the tenancy was only for educational rather than commercial use.