Current zoning plan for Old Lyme, CT (Credit: Google Map Data, 2020)

Zoning Commission Debates Future Character of Old Lyme

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OLD LYME — The town’s Zoning Commission will send recommendations for revisions to Old Lyme’s current Plan of Conservation and Development including a variety of ideas once considered out-of-step with the semi-rural character of the town. These recommendations come as the Old Lyme Planning Commission works to complete its once-every-decade update to the town plan by the end of 2020.

The Office of Policy and Management requires that every municipality in Connecticut to update its plan, or POCD,  every 10 years or risk losing eligibility for state funding.

“I think we should look at district overlays, we should look at mixed use. This is the only way, I believe, the town is going to interact importantly with its citizens, otherwise they’re going to move away,” said Jane Cable,  a longtime member and former chairman of the Zoning Commission. “Many of us have been here for 50 years and the town is not reflecting the needs of a large part of the residents and I’m sure the beach people would say that, too.”

Cable said that the town should plan for taking care of its aging population and help address the isolation that can result from growing older.

She said that she wanted to see mixed-use zoning and variable zoning regulations for villages and districts that reflect the population. “Why are we zoning for people who aren’t here?” she asked. 

Cable said the town will need to partner with nonprofit organizations — mentioning Hope Partnership as a possibility — and should work with the River Council of Governments.

Jane Marsh, secretary of the commission and a longtime member, said that the purpose of the POCD is to “state the personality of the town,” but the plan must also clearly outline the town’s objectives. 

“The town does change over time, certainly in my many, many decades here, it’s changing,” she said. “‘Preserving the rural character’ doesn’t cut it anymore. It has to be reduced to more specific standards.” 

Marsh noted that while the current plan, which dates to 2010, stated that Halls Road was designed to serve local residents rather than turnpike traffic, the draft 2020 plan revises this language, and concluding rather that “following the 2019 study sponsored by the Economic Development Community, some changes may be proposed that will support additional business activity on Halls Road.” 

“To me, that has to be determined — whether that opinion has changed or not?” Marsh said. “I am presuming that they still believe in that particular philosophy so I want them to restate it because it almost implied that they were moving away from that.” 

The Halls Road Improvements Committee has been using numbers drawn from a 2019 town-wide survey, and SWOT analysis by AdvanceCT, in collaboration with the town’s Economic Development Commission, to commission a master plan for the town’s shopping district that would include zoning revisions, retail and mixed-use housing.

Maria Martinez, an alternate on the Zoning Commission, said that she was in favor of economic development that would bring jobs into Old Lyme, attract younger people to move into town, and drive the market for housing.

“There is a whole kind of series of events that need to be planned if we’re going to build something that’s forward looking and that the whole coordinated piece is missing. What do you need to have in a town to attract people? You need tax incentives for industry to come in, you need for them to build something, you need jobs to be available so that people will come and then you have to house them,” she said. 

Marsh disagreed, saying that the expectation had always been that the town was a place to live, rather than to provide jobs.

“We have New London, New Haven, Hartford and Middletown,” she said. “But certainly we have to coordinate with the places where the jobs are, but I don’t think the plan has to say that all jobs have to be provided in the town.” 

Martinez said she was concerned that teachers, firefighters and police officers can’t afford to move to Old Lyme and wanted to see a blend of available housing. 

Marsh said it was important to have a wide range of housing and for many years the town only allowed single family homes on ¾ acre parcels of land, which meant that sewers were not necessary, with in turn limited development. The new sewer lines and installation of Connecticut Water, Marsh said, will open up possibilities that were unavailable before, especially with an increasingly year-round population in the beach communities.

Commission member Michael Barnes said that Zoning had done a good job over the years of fending off uncontrolled development, but Barnes said he was concerned that the state’s 8-30g affordable housing statute would allow developers to override local zoning control.

“You look at East Lyme and Old Saybrook, they’re both highly over-developed … and it’s crawling and it’s getting closer,” said Barnes.

Marsh said that adding more houses would not hurt Old Lyme, but adding commercial and industrial development would start to make the town look like Old Saybrook or East Lyme. 

“Developments can be tucked back in and they can be done in nice ways,” Marsh said. “But it was rather a ‘table thumper’ that we were going to be the bedroom for the local area. We were going to be ‘the space between the places.’ And I liked that idea because if there’s no space between the places then everyone has to live in developed and quasi-metropolitan areas.”

Too much emphasis on jobs in Old Lyme will probably send the town in the wrong direction, said Marsh. 

“I don’t think we should feel ashamed of being the place where people live,” she said. “Our main goal is to make that as good as it can be — and not just for wealthy people.” 

Commission Chair Paul Orzel summarized that the town’s revised Plan of Conservation and Development should be strategic forward-looking, with one-year and five-year tactical tasks. He said he would compile the commission’s comments and send a document to the Planning Commission for its October meeting.

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