Zoning map for Old Lyme, CT (Credit: Google Maps, 2019)

Town Plan Outlines Changes for Housing, Retail, and Coastal Properties in Old Lyme

Hearing and possible vote on January 14

OLD LYME — A draft of the town’s 2020 Plan of Conservation and Development is scheduled for a public hearing and potential approval by the town’s Planning Commission on Jan. 14 at 5 p.m. via Webex. 

The state requires that towns review and update their plans at least once every decade, and the current plan dates to 2010.

The draft includes substantive changes to the town’s approach to raising structures along the shoreline, to the town’s housing and zoning, and to the town’s long-standing preference for local shoppers along the commercial district on Halls Road.

The plan also reiterates a common desire “to maintain the small-town character of Old Lyme while providing for limited growth consistent with the need to preserve existing natural, cultural and historic resources” — language first adopted 45 years ago in the town’s 1975 plan.

Easing constraints on coastal property owners

For the first time, the plan includes draft language to address issues of climate change and resiliency for property owners along the shoreline of Long Island Sound.  

The plan proposes that town ease the regulatory burden of raising structures and preparing for coastal flooding:

“Individual property owners must be given a reasonable opportunity to adapt their property and raise their structures in order to offer increased protection against sea level rise and coastal storms.” 

Such steps could also include restoring and creating dunes, and constructing “flood control structures.”

In addition to proposing a flexible approach for shoreline property owners, the draft also outlines a proactive approach for the town toward coastal flooding:

“The Town of Old Lyme should encourage property owners to take at-risk flood prone structures and make them flood compliant without unnecessary administrative hurdles.”

Under current regulations, a property owner must obtain a variance from the Zoning Board of Appeals to elevate a legally non-conforming house.

According to draft language included in the plan, Old Lyme is currently the only shoreline community in Connecticut with a 24-foot height restriction for structures built on the coastline.

Encouraging housing diversity 

The plan also recommends changes in zoning regulations to allow for a diversity of housing types, including multi-family, mixed use and accessory apartments.

While acknowledging that Old Lyme is primarily a residential community and that “single-family homes should continue to be a form of residential development,” the plan proposes that:

“other options should be considered for a quantity and variety of other compatible housing types sufficient to meet the needs of various age groups, income levels and family configurations. This should include multi-family, mixed use and accessory apartments.”

These goals will require changes to local zoning, according to the draft plan, including new “regulations to allow life care and independent living facilities for the elderly, or disabled, within residential districts by special permit.”

The plan also calls for less restrictive zoning regulations for accessory housing “to encourage and allow for multi-generational living.”

Through-traffic no longer discouraged

The new draft removes language that “strongly discouraged” retail businesses and signage meant “to attract through-traffic off the highway” — a significant change in approach for the town, which still lacks fast food restaurants and chain stores common to exits along I-95.

The draft does, however, maintain that commercial development should be compatible in scale and appearance with town character and be “designed primarily to serve the retail and service needs of residents.”

The draft also retains a statement of the town’s long-standing focus on local needs in the town’s shopping district:

“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 services such as multiple gas stations, fast food restaurants and motels.” 

At the April 30 Planning Commission work session, members discussed whether gas stations in the Halls Road commercial district should be allowed to include convenience stores — what commission members described as the current business standard.

“There’s no such thing as a gas station that doesn’t have a small convenience store … they don’t exist anymore,” said Todd Machnik, a Planning Commission member, at the April 30 meeting.

The commission also discussed removing language in the plan prohibiting specific types of businesses, something that the town’s land use coordinator, Dan Bourret, warned could leave the town’s Zoning Commission without the power to prevent unwanted development. 

“It just depends how sharp you want that sword to be. I’m not sure the Zoning Commission could use just small town characteristics to necessarily deny a larger, bigger box type of development. You would need some specificity in there to give them the teeth in order to stop it because who says that a small town can’t have a McDonald’s,” he said. 

Fast food establishments, for example, are permitted in the town, but drive-thrus are not.

“No McDonald’s is going to open without a drive-thru, or Burger King or Wendy’s or any of these places is going to open without a drive-thru,” said Bourret. 

Sewer avoidance, updated

The town’s previous “aggressive program of sewer avoidance,” will be changed to a “consistent policy of sewer avoidance,” according to Harold Thompson, chair of the Planning Commission, in a call with CT Examiner on Jan. 5.

The draft plan maintains that municipal sewers should be used only to address issues of pollution, to protect groundwater and to maintain the rural character of the town. Sewers should not be installed where septic systems can be used.

“The installation of sewers within the beach communities and along Hartford Avenue is not intended to increase future economic growth.  Only pre-existing lots with accepted building plans that are already identified can be added to the sewer project. Clean Water funds do not allow economic development such as increasing density of use or adding new homes to previously non-buildable lots.”

The new plan acknowledges that much of the undeveloped land in Old Lyme is limited by “wet soils, very steep slopes and ledge conditions,” which make it difficult to install on-site septic systems. 

But the plan underscores frustration that the State of Connecticut has been unwilling to approve newer forms of septic systems allowed by other states:

“The Planning Commission is of the opinion that CT DEEP is reluctant to review and approve On-Site Sewage Disposal Systems that are approved and used in other states.”

Lyme Academy of Fine Arts

The draft eliminates all references to Lyme Academy College of Fine Arts and associated ideas of providing living space for artists and art students from its description of the Old Lyme Arts District.

The school, founded by Elizabeth Chandler in the 1970s, and until 2019 affiliated with the University of New Haven, recently hired a new executive director and is attempting to reestablish itself as a newly-independent art academy.

Finalizing the draft

According to Town of Old Lyme staff, as of Jan. 5, edits and changes to draft language are ongoing and unfinished. The current draft, which provides the basis for this reporting, dates to Nov. 10, 2020.

CT Examiner has requested the final version of the plan before the Jan. 14 hearing.

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