(Credit: 2020 Google)

East Lyme Officials Debate Balance of Conservation and Development Before Wednesday Hearing

On Wednesday, the East Lyme Board of Selectman will host a public hearing to discuss the proposed plan of conservation and development first proposed in January.

Since the prior plan was approved in 2009, several hundred units of multi-family housing have been added to town and many new businesses, including Costco Wholesale in the new Gateway Planned Development District. 

“Our commercial zones are slowly being consumed by multi-family housing. If we continue on that same progression, what does that mean for East Lyme?” said Gary Goeschel, director of planning in East Lyme. “The community might be saying the growth is too rapid.” 

And indeed, that’s what the 2020 draft plan reflects. 

“After two decades of growth, public sentiment gained through the process of updating this document has been that there is a desire to increase conservation and slow growth,” states the draft plan in the background section. 

Unlike the 2009 plan – which prioritized revitalizing the Niantic downtown and boardwalk in addition to acquiring more open space – the 2020 plan includes ten recommendations focused on farmland and agriculture. 

The recommendations are:

  1. Conserve farmland
  2. Create a community and giving garden
  3. Establish a sustainable aquaculture hub
  4. Establish a public-private partnership for sustainable aquaculture education
  5. Protect pollinator pathways
  6. Reduce harmful pesticide and fertilizer use
  7. Establish a sustainable agriculture zone
  8. Consider permitted uses on farms to help sustain their business
  9. Consider adopting additional permitted agricultural uses in residential zones
  10. Provide a tax incentive for regenerative agricultural practices

According to Goeschel, these recommendations reflect feedback gathered through public outreach and the state’s new requirement for sustainable activities in each plan of conservation and development. 

“The legislation changed and now requires plans to incorporate sustainable activities to be in line with Sustainable CT,” Goeshel said. The new legislation also requires all towns to submit a map of the sewered districts in town. 

Slowing commercial growth, however, is not everyone’s priority. 

“It’s a plan of conservation and development, we got the conservation part, but the development side might need a lot more,” said Mark Nickerson, first selectman of East Lyme. “There is a need to also consider or possibly add business or industrial land to our town. There is a demand for it.”

According to Nickerson, he has had many developers approach him about projects that are just too big for the current commercial spaces still available in town. 

“People do approach me wanting to develop in our town and I can’t offer it to them because we don’t have any more industrial land,” he said. “That’s a conversation the town has to have on Wednesday.” 

Nickerson pointed to the Gates Correctional Institute which was closed in 2011 as potential land for new development. 

“It’s hundreds of acres that aren’t being used,” he said. “Some of it is beautiful and could be conserved, but some of it we could acquire for a business park. It could bring high paying jobs into town.” 

Nickerson said it is a question for the taxpayers: do they want an increased tax base so their taxes are reduced or do they want to preserve the current ratio of residential, conservation and commercial land. 

“The apartments on the top of the hill are the highest taxpayers in town. Three years ago, that wasn’t there. There’s a balance to this bringing in more and conservation,” Nickerson said. “The question is where will we go as a town.” 

According to Goeschel, even with a focus on agriculture, the rapid development of apartments and condominiums will be difficult to stem because of the state’s push for affordable housing under Section 8-30G. 

“We are constantly having proposals for more affordable housing developments,” Goeschel said. “Despite COVID, the real estate is just moving in and developers keep wanting to build.” 

Because East Lyme has yet to meet the 10 percent quota for affordable housing stock set by the state statute, affordable housing will continue to be of interest to developers in the town for the forseeable future, said Goeschel.

The Wednesday meeting will begin at 7pm over zoom.

On November 10, the Planning Commission will hold a final public hearing before the plan is submitted to the Office of Policy and Management on December 10.

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