CT Examiner sat down with Old Lyme Democrats Martha Shoemaker, a candidate for First Selectman, and Jim Lampos, a candidate for Selectman, to discuss their campaign for the November election.
Shoemaker is a longtime member of the Old Lyme Board of Education. A native of New London, she and her family moved to Old Lyme in 1996. She was a teacher for 35 years and now works for a small business in Old Lyme, FiberQ.
Lampos is a member of the Community Connectivity Grant Committee, which has overseen the installation of sidewalks along the upper portion of Hartford Ave. and Shore Road. He was born in Norwich, grew up in Groton and spent summers in Sound View beginning in the 1970s. He directed a nonprofit development agency in New York City and moved to Old Lyme permanently in the early 2000s. He owns and operates Pizza Palace in Groton.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Why are you running for First Selectman of Old Lyme?
I think the main reason that I’m running is I’d like to bring more transparency of local government to the citizens of Old Lyme. I think sometimes the Friday notes from town hall are a little short and sweet. I’d like to provide more information and accountability across the board, what people are doing, hold people accountable, getting things done in a timely manner so projects can move forward.
What work experience do you bring to the position of First Selectman?
I think 35 years of teaching, 12 of which I served as union president, so I think that I have great organizational consensus building skills, mediation, negotiation. I can get through a contract and find the buzzwords and I’m able to work with lawyers to say, do you think this is a concern? I like people and I like to help people. I’m extremely responsive.
When I left teaching in 2017, I started working for an engineering firm in Old Lyme and I learned how to read blueprints and I learned how procurement works and I learned how to balance financial sheets, so I think I have a great deal to bring to Old Lyme. Most of all, my main goal is to bring consensus to groups. When you’re working on a project, bring in some other people, other younger people, that may not be as well known in town but still have a voice.
On the issue of transparency and communication, are there specific examples where you think the town had not done better?
Tantummaheag, it has lasted a year and should have been cleared up in a timely fashion and I think it was a lack of accountability. A new document was presented to Tim Griswold about five months ago.
I think that sitting down with people, and again, bringing both sides together — the neighbors and the homeowners — and figuring out how you can work together. It doesn’t have to go a year. Just don’t let it linger. Right? You can come up with even a quick solution that makes everybody happy for the time being while you do research.
The thing is just talking to people — we’re going to do this, then we’re going to do that, and as we move through those steps, we keep everyone informed so everyone feels they’re part of the process, and that they can add their two cents in. Eventually somebody has to make the decision. But we make a decision by walking everyone through it so they’re all no one’s shocked by what comes out.
There was a question over people using Lot B-11 as an access point, which had been used for 100 years. Tim had signed an agreement in 1997 with Pond Road in Miami Beach and the deal that came out contravened that original agreement in 1997 that Tim had signed. He sort of put together like a little ad hoc group, which I get — you can’t go through the plodding pace all the time setting up official committee appointments … you just want to get together and figure it out.
But it took a lot of people aback who couldn’t get through that access point, right at the bottom of the street. So sometimes that can kind of backfire even if your intentions are good — you can get a little comfortable in the job, I think.
I really don’t mean this as criticism of anyone in particular but it’s just the nature of a small town. Some people are involved and a lot of people are not involved. Sometimes you have to take a step back and include some more players and telegraph what you’re going to do to the stakeholders.
As you know, the bids for the sewer installation in Sound View came in higher than expected, forcing the job to be split up into smaller pieces for rebidding.
We haven’t seen the new bids, but how do you think this changes the way the town moves forward?
We’ve been talking about sewers and Sound View for over 40 years. And if it was easy, it would have been done in the 80s. With this current project, everything was thrown up in the air. The whole town was together, I think, when we were going to put a community septic at Cherrystones a few years ago. I think the voice vote was unanimous at the town meeting.
Then the state said they weren’t sure because there was a well nearby, which scrambled the whole thing over to sewers. The town wasn’t leading that charge, the charge was being led by private beaches. At a certain point, some people in Sound View thought we should really hook onto this train because it’s going to leave the station and the force main is going to go right by us. So we’ve always sort of been on the tail end of this whole project, which has made for some interesting fiscal constraints.
It went out to bid and came in very high and I know at least one of the private beaches is very concerned. They’re back on their heels and think we may need to look at other options.
We need to see what the new bids are when they come in, so I don’t want to say too much before I know what happens because that could be anything, this all could work out. If the bids come in really high, I think we have to get together with all the private beaches and figure out what we’re going to do, see what makes sense. Put everything on the table.
We have to look for other sources of funding. If the infrastructure bill passes, which it may or may not, there could be new funding for water pollution control projects. So, time may actually be on our side if the infrastructure bill happens. All we can do now is wait and see what happens with the bids and not get too far ahead of ourselves.
Do you believe that the current funding formula for sewers was decided rightly?
I don’t know that the funding formula has actually been set yet, we haven’t gotten a final. So I don’t want to judge that until there’s a final.
The affordable housing statute, 8-30g, sets a goal of 10 percent affordable housing. Do you see that as achievable in Old Lyme?
I think this question just lights everything up on the pinball machine.
With 8-30g, I think we have a deficit of about 400 units in town. About 1.47% of our housing stock qualifies as affordable out of 5000 units.
Because we’re not exempt from 8-30g, if someone wants to come in, for example, to buy a big lot and do 1300 units, 400 of which are affordable, they could fly right over zoning unless the town comes back and proves that’d be a public health hazard or danger to the public. Could that happen? Well, everything’s being upended these days, anything could happen.
But what we need to do as a town is get ahead of things and that’s really why I’m running.
I think we all agree in Old Lyme that we love the nature — that’s where it kind of all starts. We love the nature, we love the arts — where do the arts come from? The nature. The beauty of the town is the first thing that strikes you when you’re in Old Lyme, kind of bathing in this beautiful place, just the trees and the birds and the vistas.
And if you go up and down the coast either way, you see some horror shows, and you realize that Boston is marching south and New York is marching north. And if you go on Long Island, there’s some real horror stories there.
Recently, we’ve had some surprises — there was the high speed rail project and then the gas station on Halls Road, and down in my neighborhood, we have a proposal for 30,000 square foot storage units.
One of the problems in this town has been that we’ve had the stop sign up for a long time, because we didn’t want families because we were growing so quickly. Our tax base is essentially seasonal residents and high-value properties in the rest of town, and that was our revenue stream. The town was concerned that a lot of families would demand a lot of services and children would be in the schools and that would raise the taxes.
Well, those are 1980s problems — now we’re in 2021 — and we still have 1980s solutions to 1980s problems. Our zoning doesn’t really fit where we’re at now.
In 2019, the Osten bill talked about breaking up Region 18, rolling Old Lyme into Salem and Montville — even though we’re a regionalized district, we’re under 2000 kids — the bill specifically said, even if you’re a regional school district, if you have under 2000 kids, you better find another district.
And people in Old Lyme were concerned our kids were going to get bussed across the river. Already my kids have a 40 minute ride all around town — what’s it going to be like?
So if we want to preserve what we have, we have to get ahead of some of these issues. And affordable housing is one of those things we have to get ahead of, or it will be done unto us.
What we don’t do at all in this town are tax abatements. Most towns use the tool of tax abatement to create the sort of development they want — affordable housing or whatever. Essentially affordable housing in Old Lyme is a unit that’s $2,000 a month for a family making $70,000 a year or 80% of the median income, which is around $93,000.
We’re really talking about middle class housing for teachers, firefighters, etc. We’re talking about families and activities to attract them, but also like they’re being sort of shut out. If you’re growing up in Old Lyme and you want to stay in Old Lyme, raise your family, you’re going to have a tough time finding a place to live unless you’re staying with mom and dad and that’s going to get crowded. You’re going to have to leave town even if you have your job here, so I think we’d like to have affordable housing.
We haven’t even thought about tax abatements for these abandoned buildings. We look at them down in Sound View. We have the old post office. I took a tour through it. It’s disgraceful, it’s filled with garbage, but the bones of that building are tremendous — who would want to take it on? Another abandoned building, the old Italian social club, has been abandoned for 40 years, I’ve been looking at that eyesore for 40 years and nothing’s happening.
Why do you think Old Lyme doesn’t typically offer tax abatements?
I think a lot of the strategy in Old Lyme has been for a long time — and it’s worth it because it’s given us this beautiful town — is the “politics of no.” You just try to stop everything. Well, now we’re seeing that things are going to be done unto us if we don’t get ahead of it.
So tax abatements is one thing we can look at. The other thing that we can look at with sewers, are the small houses that are seasonal. The only thing stopping them from going year round is you need to get approved some kind of wastewater management and some sort of water source and that can be tricky. Sewers come in and suddenly you’re opening up all these properties.
Some of them are small, some of them are affordable — that’s an opportunity right there..
The most recent census data show that towns in the region have lost a significant part of their younger population, some as much as a third over the last 10 years — in Old Lyme a bit less at 16 percent. What solutions would you propose to address that challenge?
We want to make Old Lyme a place for families, younger families, and for those of us like myself, who have kids that have grown up and are leaving — one moved to Rhode Island, one to Hoboken — you want them to be able to want to come back — they may not come back. …
You want to draw things that families are going to want for their kids.
We have a great school system, no question — we need to raise numbers up although they have been rising — our monthly stats have gone up month by month and we only have 10 tuition paying students so it’s not like those are the ones drawing it in. We did have the numbers go up during COVID as people moved into. Those are good signs. But we need to bring more.
What do you think families would want?
It would be nice to have more walkability, being able to walk your strollers through a playground and not have to stop and go out into the street to get to the next sidewalk. Our playgrounds need to be updated. If you look at Town Woods, the playground there, the only time you see kids on it is when you have soccer games, because the littles are there or the older kids who are not playing.
But what about if you did more activities, different types of activities at that park? What if you had a movie night? Other towns do it and entice people to be there. They get to know it. When they first move to a town, people need to be led to these places, not figure it out for themselves where it is, they need to be told, hey, this is a great place to go on a Saturday afternoon, this is a fun thing to do.
But again, you have to ask parents what they want. I’m not the deciding factor, nor Jim or whoever’s on the board of selectmen. It’s to build consensus — what are some things that we want to fit into this community that we could possibly do?