EAST LYME — The many of the participants at a public forum on conservation and development voiced concerns that future business and residential development would negatively impact the quality of life in the town. About 45 people filled the room in Town Hall.
“When I think of Niantic and Flanders Four Corners 10 years from now, I see massive traffic jams during the events that we all enjoy, and I see extremely congested driving on a daily basis,” said resident Ed Lilienthal. “It’s easy for anyone here to imagine this because we are beginning to see these conditions now.”
Lilienthal added that he thought the town should improve its bike paths to reduce traffic congestion, encourage people to explore town outside of their cars, and to generally improve property values and quality of life.
Lilienthal was one of about 20 people who spoke at a public forum hosted in Town Hall on Tuesday night to solicit public opinion as East Lyme officials revise the town’s Plan of Conservation and Development.
The plan outlines a broad vision of recommendations for the town on matters of economic development, growth, sustainability and conservation over the next 10 years.
Before opening the floor to the public, Plan of Conservation and Development Subcommittee Chair Michelle Royce Williams gave a brief presentation on how the plan is structured.
“Ultimately, this is your Plan of Conservation and Development as citizens of the town so we are ultimately interested in hearing your vision,” Williams said.
Not all residents who spoke were worried about development. Geoff Maynard, who identified himself as a parent with children in swim programs, said that he wanted to see more development and a “revitalization” of Niantic, particularly if it would support a better community center and opportunities for fitness and recreation.
“I have spoken with many other parents in my circle, and I know people want to see more growth, more opportunities for recreation, and want to see Niantic reach its full potential. I would be happy to pay more taxes and volunteer in any way to achieve these goals.”
Real estate agent Sue Bowes, owner-operator of RE/MAX On The Bay, said that she was concerned that large commercial developments would be unattractive to residents but that smaller boutiques would still suit the “Essex-village type setting” of parts of the town.
“When I listen to some of the stuff that they’re looking to develop it really scares me,” Bowes said. “It scares me for the community, and it scares me for the residents… I think Niantic has its own charm and that it should be developed that way — that we should continue to encourage boutiques and restaurants and museums.”
Resident Gian Lombardo encouraged the town to shift from commercial and industrial land use toward expanding East Lyme’s agricultural base and protecting open space. He also said that the town would need to adapt to changing demographics.
“The birth rate is going down, and Millennials and Gen X and Gen Y don’t buy into the suburban model, they want areas that they can walk around and commute to work by bike or by mass transit. The suburban model is not the one that will take over in the next generation. I don’t want us to see a town in 30 years where a quarter of the houses are empty because no one wants to be here. I think we need to look ahead at what’s happening in the future and where the town is going.”
Later in the forum Lombardo added that, “One of the things we take pride in here is that we consider ourselves a small town, but with a population of almost 20,000 that swells to probably 40,000 or more in the summers, we’re not a small town anymore. We might want the small town feel but we need to take a look at things as a larger town and take a look at that.”
Agribusiness and conservation groups talk natural resources
Representatives from several community groups focused on preserving natural resources advocated for the Plan of Conservation and Development to encourage purchases of open space, particularly when it could protect the upstream regions of the town’s water supplies on the northern portion of East Lyme.
“Our goal is to protect the drinking water,” said Ron Luich, president of the East Lyme Land Trust. “We think that is one of the most important aspects of East Lyme, and we are focusing our energies on the northern part to protect the trees, which are also a major filter for carbon.”
Deb Moshier-Dunn, vice president of Save the River-Save the Hills, said that members of her group were strong advocates of protecting Oswegatchie Hills. She encouraged the town toward a goal of purchasing the remaining undeveloped acres at Oswegatchie, to mandate septic pumping every three years to reduce water pollution, and to plan for increased erosion and sea level rise.
“The towns in the Niantic River Watershed have the life of the river in their hands,” Moshier-Dunn said.
Sally Uden, representing the town’s Agribusiness Committee, said that it was important for the town to protect natural resources and water supplies in order to protect the business of about 50 farmers who work on 2000 acres in East Lyme.
Uden said that the solar field construction on Walnut Hill was an example of a development that was negatively impacting the town’s water.
“As a result of the solar panel construction at the top of Walnut Hill, DEEP estimated that 900 tons of sediment coated the river bottom of Niantic River and Latimer Brook, destroying fish and agricultural habitat,” Uden said. “That solar field is located in the northern end. Much of our open farmland is also located in the northern end of town, where many of our water supplies begin. These require our safeguard and protection.”
Tim Londregan of Niantic Bay Shellfish Farm advocated for including specific protections for aquaculture and shellfishing.
Londregan has an appeal lodged with the Zoning Board of Appeals, seeking to overturn an order from the town to cease certain business operations at Marker 7 Marina. He said that town hall was “waging a war” on his business against recommendations in the 2009 plan of conservation celebrating shellfishing and aquaculture. Londregan argued that these actions threatened the historic tradition of aquaculture in East Lyme.
“I ask this commission to ensure that the importance of aquaculture, shellfishing, agriculture, and the working waterfront be enshrined in the new POCD as an assurance to future generations that the current political climate at town hall does not deny our children’s enjoyment of East Lyme’s historic water-dependent uses, namely aquaculture, shellfishing, and agriculture,” Londregan said.
Additional opportunities for public review
Michelle Royce Williams said after the forum in a brief interview that she was impressed by the turnout and that the discussion remained civil. Williams’ subcommittee is expected to deliver a rough outline of the final plan to the Planning Commission in April or May. The draft would then be sent to the Board of Selectmen. Williams said the public will have a number of additional opportunities to comment before the plan is complete.
Note this story has been updated to correct the name of resident Gian Lombardo. Lombardo also wrote to clarify that the population of East Lyme can “swell to 30,000 or more in the summer.”