Withdrawn plan for ranch-style housing on Halls Road

Halls Road Committee Moves Forward on Master Plan, Housing Remains an Issue

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OLD LYME — Now in its fifth year — after local elections in 2019 that turned in part on questions of housing and development —  the Halls Road Improvements Committee is quickly moving to create a master plan to encourage redevelopment and new housing in the commercial district in Old Lyme.

The committee will fund the plan with the roughly $48,000 remaining from an abandoned effort to implement Tax Increment Financing and to hire Yale Design Urban Workshop. Committee chair Edie Twining said at a May 14 meeting that the committee has informally asked three firms to bid on the work.

Since the departure of BJ Bernblum as chair, as well as members Sabrina Foulke and Jon Curtis, the committee’s goals have remained consistent, but the outlines and implementation of the planning after five years remain elusive. Although a large majority of Old Lyme residents have indicated in multiple forums that they support improvements to the commercial district, there remains significant disagreement about what those improvements should entail and how they should look.

Perhaps the most significant question remains whether Halls Road should be rezoned for “mixed-use residential” development to encourage the construction of housing for the first time since the state-controlled thoroughfare was designated a commercial district in the 1960s.

The status of housing in the proposed master plan is complicated by divergent interpretations of an August 2019 town-wide online survey and two SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) workshops organized by AdvanceCT (formerly the Connecticut Economic Resource Center) on behalf of the town’s Economic Development Commission. 

A feasibility study concluding that work has been drafted, but remains unfinished.

A question of housing

Earlier at a January 8 meeting of the Economic Development Commission, co-chairs Justin Fuller and Howard Margules debated interpretations of the survey results, according to meeting minutes, with Fuller underscoring the need for a “data-driven” summary, and Margules noting the “very mixed and in some cases, contradictory” results between the survey and SWOT workshops regarding housing on Halls Road. 

“For example, [Margules] stated that the survey results indicated that only 20% wanted additional housing, but on Halls Rd. ⅔ of the respondents picked different options that they wanted to see. [Margules] recognized that it could be challenging to interpret the results unless the reader has more background on the bigger picture.”

“The findings from the survey and the SWOT are completely different, and I just wondered which one is carrying the weight because I think in the SWOT there was mention of stakeholders and I’m a little confused as to who is a stakeholder and why there’s so much more weight on that material rather than what is in the survey that Old Lyme residents took,” said Czarnecki.

More recently at a recorded April 16 Halls Road Committee Zoom meeting, Bud Canaday expressed surprise that the committee was moving ahead on a master plan rather than focusing on more immediate goals of installing sidewalks and constructing a new pedestrian bridge across the Lieutenant River.

Board chair Edie Twining, while acknowledging the town’s limited jurisdiction along Halls Road — and while agreeing that the committee would prioritize more immediate goals including sidewalks and a pedestrian bridge — also pointed out what she saw as significant support in the town for mixed-use and residential development on Halls Road.

Twining: “… at the same time, you know, allowing for the idea of mixed-used and having residential there, is something that from what we’ve heard very many people are in favor of….” 

Canaday: “Well, I wouldn’t say very many, I’ve been over the survey, not a majority for sure..”

Twining: “Well, we’ve had 80 percent of the people talking about wanting to see change on Halls Road …”

Canday: “Change, but that’s a different order…”

Twining: “But, not just sidewalks.”

Twining explained that she was not holding her breath “that there would be any new development right away, but I do know that I’ve talked to [garbled] who wanted to develop residential on Halls Road and I told him he couldn’t do that because it’s zoned commercial only. If it’s all commercial and we can’t do residential, then we’re stuck with something that will not change. That’s the reason for zoning.”

More recently, during a May 14 Zoom meeting of Halls Road Committee, Deb Czarnecki again returned  to the apparent inconsistency of SWOT and survey results, and questioned how the committee was interpreting the data.

Orzel also offered examples of successful redevelopment districts including “the new transit-oriented, mixed-use developments found sprouting up all around Boston. Mini villages at the mass transit T stations that have housing and “key basics” of shops — laundry, market, salon.”

“The findings from the survey and the SWOT are completely different, and I just wondered which one is carrying the weight because I think in the SWOT there was mention of stakeholders and I’m a little confused as to who is a stakeholder and why there’s so much more weight on that material rather than what is in the survey that Old Lyme residents took,” said Czarnecki. “I feel like a large part of what is moving forward, the driving fact of changing zoning, is all related to the SWOT ‘wants’ rather than the [survey].”

The survey was a random sampling of residents and business owners, Margules replied, and the SWOT was by invitation “to make sure you have a good cross section of people,” as recommended by AdvanceCT. 

Czarnecki said she joined the committee because she thought it was in support of the beautification and enhancement of Halls Road.

“Now it’s like a housing authority,” she said. 

The sum of the information collected points to a desire for a diversity of housing options, said Margules.

“The large majority of people were against affordable housing, so when it came to Halls Road that was a little bit mixed, but when you asked people specific questions about it, they favored certain housing options, so there were a lot of people who weighed in on that,” Margules said.

“The large majority of people were against affordable housing, so when it came to Halls Road that was a little bit mixed, but when you asked people specific questions about it, they favored certain housing options, so there were a lot of people who weighed in on that,” Margules said. “If you put the survey information with all the things that the Halls Road Committee did — open houses, the 80-something people that we talked to at the mid-summer festival — if you added that in, it was overwhelming support for housing that would allow seniors to downsize and young people who wanted to stay in Old Lyme.” 

Czarnecki said she saw a major change in the direction of the committee.

“There is no talk of retail anymore, obviously, because of what’s going on. And now suddenly we’re changing zoning because we want housing on Halls Road whereas you have Route 156 and the beach area that’s going to have water and sewer,” she said. 

Cheryl Poirier agreed that the survey results showed residents “overwhelmingly” wanted more dining and entertainment options, more bike lanes and pedestrian-friendly infrastructure. But she pointed out that mixed-use, with apartments on the upper floor with retail below, would feed into those improvements.

“What that does is bring more vibrancy to a neighborhood so that people are walking down a street to get a coffee or are walking to a grocery store or to a restaurant,” she said. “So I think the intention for any housing is to just bring a little vibrancy to how the retail businesses can be accessed.” 

Ray Thompson said it was important to add flexibility to the zoning on Halls Road. 

“At some stage you have to make it possible for a vision to happen. If it’s fully zoned commercial, it is what it is,” he said. “This is just a skeleton of what might be possible but right now we have to fill in the skeleton in some way. And this is just one phase of it, investigating zoning so that it can be a viable place.”

“We’re not just inventing this idea. We’re trying to give people a real reason to feel like it’s a nice place to walk down the street and go get a cup of coffee. We’re not trying to say the developers just want to do residential now, so let’s do that for Old Lyme. We’ve been listening to what people are asking for and we’re trying to address that,” said Twining. 

Margules agreed that the existing retail model is not sustainable.  

“People want to be able to walk to restaurants, food stores and other retail and other services. That’s the model where successful communities are moving [to]. If you look at Niantic and Madison, they’ve incorporated those kinds of things. The ones that haven’t are all dying.” 

Czarnecki said listening to residents was more important than theories of municipal success.

“I’ve been in many towns as I drive around and whether they have vibrancy or not, the way to go is to listen to what your residents are saying and I don’t feel that you really are,” she said. 

Twining said the message she and other committee members had heard from residents was they wanted mixed-use housing options. 

“We’re not just inventing this idea. We’re trying to give people a real reason to feel like it’s a nice place to walk down the street and go get a cup of coffee. We’re not trying to say the developers just want to do residential now, so let’s do that for Old Lyme. We’ve been listening to what people are asking for and we’re trying to address that,” said Twining. 

Village District

Earlier on May 13, 2019, the Halls Road Improvements Committee presented draft ideas to the Old Lyme Zoning Commission which included housing, and were encouraged by then-chair Jane Cable to consider implementing a “village district.” Cable, who was defeated in a bid for reelection in November 2019, remains on the Zoning Commission until her term expires in November 2020.

“There is no talk of retail anymore, obviously, because of what’s going on. And now suddenly we’re changing zoning because we want housing on Halls Road whereas you have Route 156 and the beach area that’s going to have water and sewer,” she said. 

“I think what you’re going to need is a village district, which will — for that area only — change the setbacks, heights, and the mixed uses that you’re looking for,” said Cable. “I think you have to create that area, define it, and then have special zoning for that area.”  

In recent months, the Halls Road Committee and Economic Development Commission — which share members Twining and Margules — have been collaborating on the creation of a “village district” to allow for mixed-use residential development and to shape the future appearance of Halls Road.

A village district is a type of overlay zoning, a regulatory tool that can add special provisions to the base zone or zones. Given the approval of voters, a municipality’s zoning commission may establish a village district to encourage or manage specific types of development, potentially including mixed-use of residential, retail and commercial in areas of “distinctive character, landscape or historic value that are specifically identified in the plan of conservation and development of the municipality,” according to state law. 

According to minutes from the April 30 Halls Road Committee Zoom meeting, which was not recorded, Edie Twining, Raymond Thompson and Howard Margules met with current zoning chair Paul Orzel and Jane Cable to discuss the formation of an exploratory subcommittee that would advance the development of a petition for creating a village district. 

As discussed, the subcommittee would include members from the Zoning Commission, Planning Commission, “stakeholders from the Halls Road business and cultural establishments and subject matter experts (non-voting) should be included as appropriate at various stages of the process.”

Machnik said, “This was written when we were all afraid of [garbled] and Burger Kings and flashing lights and stuff, and even that’s not happening anymore. When was the last time you saw them build a new McDonald’s? Like never.”

“[Orzel] stressed the idea that the village district should be a dynamic document that can conform to the changing fallout created by the Covid 19 Pandemic. We need to define what we want to create and then build a village zone to address that to make a successful new district.”

Orzel also offered examples of successful redevelopment districts including “the new transit-oriented, mixed-use developments found sprouting up all around Boston. Mini villages at the mass transit T stations that have housing and “key basics” of shops — laundry, market, salon.” 

Orzel described redevelopment that could involve a wide range of potential options and concepts outside of the existing character of the town. If approved by the voters, a new village district would give pre-approval to conforming projects, bypassing what has been a notably onerous process, that for decades has limited growth, but also largely maintained the character of the town.

Earlier in the evening at a recorded Zoom meeting of the Planning Commission on April 30, planning members described the town’s zoning as stuck-in-time and unnecessarily restrictive, questioning the repeated refusal to allow the gas station on Halls Road to adopt a contemporary convenience store model. “Now, there is no such thing as a gas station that doesn’t have a small convenience store,” Todd Machnick argued.

“I’d like to share with the committee that if this something you’d like to see conceptually, I’m a firm believer in walkability for the next generation of homeowners. I think having a house that would serve the needs of empty nesters, ranch-style units, close to the town center, is something that I would want personally and I feel like [it’s something that other people would want].”

The current Plan of Conservation and Development, which by law must be updated at least every decade, dates to 2010. In recent meetings, the town’s Planning Commission was discussing line-by-line revisions. Members debated eliminating a portion of the current Plan of Conservation and Development which had been used by zoning to block the proposal:

“Although Old Lyme has two exits connecting to Interstate 95, the town’s interests are focused on providing basic services and amenities for year-round and summer residents and guests. It has deliberately avoided any pressure to allow turnpike-oriented residents services such as multiple gas stations, fast food restaurants and motels.”

Machnik said, “This was written when we were all afraid of [garbled] and Burger Kings and flashing lights and stuff, and even that’s not happening anymore. When was the last time you saw them build a new McDonald’s? Like never.”

Withdrawn proposal

On March 26, developer Steven Calcagni emailed Twining a proposed site plan for an eight-unit condominium project slated for 99 Halls Road, a 1.33-acre site owned by Essex Savings Bank. 

“I’m a firm believer that healthy downtowns need a mix of residential and commercial use to stay vibrant. Additionally, I feel there are some people who either want or need to be within a walkable distance to services. I hope the committee agrees and the proposed “Village District” will include a similar shared vision,” Calcagni wrote. 

During an informal presentation to the committee at the April 16 meeting, Calcagni asked the Halls Road committee for feedback on the residential project, which included two- and three-bedroom ranch-style units. He said he had the property under option and was not planning to move forward until either the village district is created or “there’s momentum in that direction.” 

“Frankly I may just have to stand down and wait for the committee to decide what they want to include in the overlay zone,” Calcagni said. “I’d like to share with the committee that if this something you’d like to see conceptually, I’m a firm believer in walkability for the next generation of homeowners. I think having a house that would serve the needs of empty nesters, ranch-style units, close to the town center, is something that I would want personally and I feel like [it’s something that other people would want].”