OLD LYME — In light of a controversial gas station proposal that was withdrawn on Monday, and another service plaza rumored to be underway, the Halls Road Improvements Committee grappled with how to expedite zoning changes at a virtual meeting Thursday night.
The discussion, which became contentious at times, followed a presentation from BSC Group of phase two of the Halls Road master plan. The conceptual drawings showed town investments along the Halls Road right-of-way and municipally-owned land, including a sidewalk-bikeway beginning at Lyme St. that would entail building a boardwalk in one area and a bow bridge to cross the Lieutenant River. Other ideas included installing sidewalks and lighting, minimizing curb cuts and adding on-street parking.
After the presentation, committee member David Kelsey asked whether members had read the town zoning regulations because some uses that the town clearly didn’t want, even adult entertainment, were allowed. He said the pace of the masterplan was too slow and the project needed a timeline for completion as well as attention to priorities.
“It’s not what kind of drainage or sewage we need for affordable housing or whatever it is. We need mixed use, we need less setbacks. It’s pretty simple what we need, but we need it a lot faster,” he said.
Jef Fasser, a vice president of BSC Group who presented the plan, said he thought the outline of needed zoning regulation changes was due at the next meeting of the committee. Fasser said he forgot to include the final slide showing next steps but emphasized that zoning changes were a priority followed by an exploration of funding.
Kelsey said that he would send a list to Fasser of zoning regulations that needed to be changed in the next three days to speed up the process.
The town cannot “lurch from gas station to gas station,” said Kelsey, referring to the recent application withdrawal of the Big Y Express and convenience store for 99 Halls Road and 25 Neck Road. He was also referring to rumors that Cumberland Farms has purchased the building at 100 and 102 Halls Road.
Committee Chair Edie Twining encouraged the committee to approve the presentation so that it could be sent to the Board of Selectmen, which would allow work to commence on zoning regulations.
Howard Margules, member of committee, urged others to expedite the process and made a motion that the committee approve the plan, recognizing that changes would be made in the future.
Kelsey said he needed more time to reflect on the plan and objected that there had been no public input. He also questioned exactly what the committee was approving if changes to the plan were to be made in the future.
Twining said the plans were based on “an earlier vision proposal from 2019 so a lot of people in the town have seen the precursor to this set of plans.”
In a phone call with CT Examiner on Friday, Twining said the town hired the Yale Urban Design Workshop in 2018 to develop concepts for Halls Road. She said Yale was eventually fired because “we don’t want four-story brick buildings on Halls Road.” She said she personally reworked the concept in service to the committee, which presented the new drawings at a number of open houses and events around Old Lyme in 2019.
At the meeting, Twining said many people in town had seen the committee’s 2019 precursor to the BSC plans and that the concepts were not new.
Kelsey said he had seen the previous plans but the new ones were “significantly different from the plans three years ago.”
The new plan included zoning changes that would allow residential use, increase density, modify setbacks and building placement, relax parking ratios and create design guidelines for signage “consistent with the character of the town.”
Kelsey said he needed a day to reflect upon the BSC plan and objected to being rushed.
Committee member Debra Czarnecki agreed with Kelsey that she needed more time to review the plan. She said it was important to focus on manageable goals, specifically the town-owned property improvements, rather than redevelopment by private property owners that could mimic some of the Yale workshop concepts.
“Are you going to say we’re focusing on sidewalks and the green space and signage? Because I feel like if you start trotting out another masterplan to another specific group, it’s going to look just like the Yale study, and it’s not going to work.”
Margules said approval of the plans would expedite the process and objected that the same committee members who were adding pressure to move the project forward were also refusing to approve the plan.
Committee member Michael Reiter said there were too many questions that needed to be answered before the plan could be recommended to the Board of Selectmen.
The committee finally agreed to hold a special meeting in a week to 10 days to discuss the plan further. Twining declined to provide the public planning documents to review and include in this story.
Editor’s note: David Kelsey is co-founder and primary funder of the Connecticut Examiner. He played no role in advising or the reporting of this story