On Oct. 12, with little fanfare, Old Lyme’s Zoning Commission took up a petition to change the existing rules determining what owners of private parcels of land can and cannot do in a new “village district,” stretching from Huntley Rd. and the shopping center, clear across to the Florence Griswold Museum and the Krieble Gallery.
Town officials are now ‘on the clock,’ through the election and into the holidays, to decide whether to approve or reject a 61-page plan that includes several dozen significant changes governing everything from the style guidelines for acceptable architecture and renovations to what sorts of businesses may rent spaces along Halls Road.
Amazingly, the plan was never reviewed by a lawyer, has yet to be approved by the town’s Planning Commission and wasn’t even approved by the Halls Road Improvements Committee which is supposed to be in charge of the process.
Not surprisingly, advocates of the project suggest that the changes are supported by most everyone.
But how many townspeople or affected property owners are even aware that a finalized plan exists, much less that it could be approved within a matter of weeks, and result in every building along Halls Road and nearby being reclassified for the purposes of zoning, as “nonconforming”?
But was any formal notification mailed out to property owners, as would normally be required for even relatively simple changes to a neighboring parking lot or roofline?
Unfortunately, I can’t even find a copy of the proposed maps or rule changes anywhere online to link to, but luckily I’ve obtained a copy of the proposed new rules here and the brief Oct. 12 presentation here, so you can judge for yourself whether these are good ideas or bad, before they are approved.
I strongly encourage you to take a look, and I am happy for everyone to send along their questions and comments, highlighting the good and the bad as you see it, and I’ll try to get some answers. You can even send a letter to the editor!
Offhand, here are a few questions I have to start the ball rolling…
- Given that the village district extends onto the grounds of the Florence Griswold Museum, would any significant renovations or new construction on the grounds require the approval of an architectural review board? Could a new building or gallery in the style of the Krieble Gallery be approved for the site?
- If an existing building on Halls Rd. burns down or is destroyed, can it be replaced without conforming to new rules for parking, setbacks, style and use?
- Given the new requirement that 80% of first floor spaces fronting Halls Rd. must be strictly retail business, what if any nearby towns have a retail mix on Main Street that would meet such requirements?
- If a building owner cannot find a suitable retail tenant, but could rent to a lawyer or architect or real estate business, for example, will the retail space be left empty? Would a chain store, for example a Dollar General, have preference over a local professional office?
- The idea of a club with racquet courts and pickleball has been discussed [full disclosure for a property recently purchased by a primary funder of CT Examiner] on Halls Rd. Would this be a permitted use without first floor retail space?
- Under the proposed rules, what would stop a retail business with reduced setbacks, like the new CVS on the Main Street in Clinton, from simply opening laterally onto a parking lot adjacent to the road?
- Why are there detailed rules for bakeries and bed and breakfasts, for example, but not for developers of hotels or motels on Halls Road?
- What constitutes (or does not constitute) a “club” under the proposed rules?
For my own part, it’s pretty clear that these changes would prevent the construction of a new theater space that was discussed quietly this spring, in part because the proposed design – like many performance spaces — was avowedly contemporary.
Which also raises a pretty obvious question, in a town that prides itself on the arts — why would we hamstring Halls Road and its environs with the faux historicism characteristic of McMansions, but circumscribe the rich local heritage of a Jonathan Isleib or the work of Chad Floyd?
I’ll have more to say, but first maybe take a look at this piece – “What’s up with all those empty commercial storefronts in new mixed-use developments?” –published a couple of years ago by Strong Towns, the virtual Bible of these sorts of ideas.If they’re pondering the problem, and the suitability of such development for small businesses, perhaps we should too, and soon.
In the meantime, I would encourage the Town of Old Lyme to withdraw the application from consideration, until these ideas have benefited from even a modicum of public and professional scrutiny. It would be shame to throw out the baby with the bathwater, which is surely where we stand now. There are good ideas here — like reduced setbacks and changing parking requirements — which deserve consideration.
Note: an earlier version of this editorial stated the Planning Commission had not discussed the proposal. The text has been corrected to reflect that members of the Planning Commission discussed the proposal on Oct. 14.