Hall Road Process Byzantine, Not Nefarious or Sneaky

To the Editor:

Your editorial, (Oct. 22, “Has Anyone Actually Read the New Rules for Halls Road (and Flo Gris)?”] seems to have been based on Dave Kelsey’s email of the same date to his fellow members of the Halls Road Improvements Committee (HRIC). The article even includes some of his phrasing. You added a few things and subtracted a few, the net result of which was to make it more alarmist and strident than the original. I can’t fault you for that. It’s what sells papers. Besides: you’re good at it. 🙂

I think the article as a whole urges our town in the wrong direction. I’d like to point out some errors of fact and some misleading implications.

You make it sound as if, from out of the blue, the poor, unsuspecting merchants and property owners along Halls Road were suddenly being threatened with a host of new regulations where there had been none before; that the changes were proposed and presented in some underhanded way, and that the only proper course was for the citizenry to rise up and quash this horrible plot at once. Sorry if I exaggerate, but you started it….

If nearly three years of very public and wide-spread discussion, and dozens of public notices (and meetings, and surveys, and articles in the press, including here…) about changes to the zoning along Halls Road counts as “little fanfare,” then I shudder to think what big fanfare would be. The proposed zoning changes are the result of years of work. Much of it was unpaid, but the most recent part (the detailed zoning language) was done by professionals contracted by the town for that purpose. This is not sudden, but has been painfully slow. This is not hidden, but has been widely shared, both by public notices and face-to-face conversations with property owners, business owners, town officials, local organizations, and the citizenry at large.

The merchants and property owners are neither poor nor unsuspecting. They are grown-ups. They pay attention to things that may affect their business interests, and the effort to improve Halls Road is clearly one such thing. They have been notified, surveyed, and asked to participate in public forums from the very beginning. The master plan reflects the concerns they raised. The new zoning is designed to address those concerns and allow the plan to become a reality.

Their specific individual concerns are as varied as the businesses they represent, but all of them want Halls Road to be a good place to do business and an attractive place for the public, now and in the future. Businesses who might get a boost from walk-in trade find it sorely lacking today. For others, that is not an issue. Some would get a direct benefit from having customers who lived nearby; others not. In general, Halls Road business people and property owners are reluctant to weigh-in publicly on what they rightly consider to be a matter for the whole town to decide. They are in business to serve the whole town, and it makes no sense for them to contradict any potential customer on any side of any issue. That does not mean they are uninformed or that they have no opinion. They have all been kept informed, and have had (and continue to have) ample opportunity to comment in public and/or face-to-face — an opportunity most have taken.

It is true that zoning is a form of regulation. It applies to businesses and private persons alike. It has been around for nearly a century. Today there are strip malls on Halls Road and very few businesses on Lyme Street, but only because Old Lyme made it so by changing the zoning in both places. The town managed the development in both places by very deliberately encouraging one thing on Halls Road and discouraging or forbidding its competitors on Lyme Street.

The property owners and businesses (and potential investors) along Halls Road are already operating under many hundreds of pages of laws, ordinances, zoning regulations, etc. Withdrawing the proposed zoning changes, as you suggest we do, would not lift one ounce of burden from the businesses and property owners there. It would just confirm the burdens they already bear, and tell them the town refused to face the future.

Instead, the town has proposed to change the zoning along Halls Road to make it a better environment for retail trade in the Internet era, to add much needed smaller-scale housing for seniors and new families just starting out, to forestall it becoming a set of truck stops, and to change it from vast empty parking lots to a walkable, bike-able shopping and living neighborhood. All of that is good for business. All of that is good for property owners. All of that is good for Old Lyme.

Creating a sixty-plus-page petition full of dense zoning text was neither easy nor free, but it was a lot cheaper than $2,000,000+ for sidewalks. Without the zoning changes and the investment they will allow, those valuable sidewalks will go nowhere but to fading strip malls and empty spaces. We have to plan for our future. We cannot cling to those inventions of the 1950s that are tottering today and will be gone tomorrow.

You imply that there was something underhanded about the way these zoning regulations were drafted and presented. That is false. The process is well-established. HRIC consulted with Zoning to find out what the process was, and followed their instructions. The process went on all summer and into the fall. When the Halls Road Master Plan Report was published, HRIC set a subcommittee to work with BSC (the town’s consultant) to help get the necessary zoning changes ready to give to the First Selectman, so he could submit them to the Zoning Board. By mid-August the work was almost finished and all members of HRIC were sent copies. They were reminded of the scheduled next steps, and asked to send their comments. None did. The Zoning Board had the text from the First Selectman in September, but did not schedule the formal presentation of the petition until their regular meeting on October 12. At that meeting, the Zoning Board attorney said he had comments, but (as the hour was late) he would send them to the Zoning Enforcement Officer and they could be addressed at the next regular meeting. So, yes: the new zoning has been looked at by an attorney for the town, and that process is still underway. The town (not the Zoning Board) is responsible for contacting the affected property owners and the abutters. This has all been done in the order and in the manner that the Zoning Board specified as being the standard way to present proposed changes. It may seem Byzantine (it does to me, at least), but it is not nefarious or sneaky, just tedious.

Is that it? Is the new zoning a done deal? No, it is not, and was never intended to be. BSC and HRIC did the best job they could, but there are undoubtedly some things that are missing, out of alignment with other regulations, etc. These need to be addressed. For example, you brought up a good point when you said the Florence Griswold Museum owns frontage on Halls Road within the proposed district (same borders as the current Commercial-Only district). This could mean the museum could be subject to the regulations intended to encourage building retail along Halls Road. Applying those measures to the Florence Griswold Museum is clearly not the intention of the plan, and the zoning proposal should be changed to prevent such unintended consequences. Also, the proposed new zoning says nothing about hours of operation, which should probably be changed. I’m sure there will be more. That does not mean the entire petition should be withdrawn.

You seem to misunderstand what the Design Guidelines are and how they will work.

Nearly everyone in this town (80% +) thinks maintaining the small-town, rural New England look and feel of Old Lyme is a top priority. Few things get such universal agreement. How the collection of strip centers on Halls Road gets a “pass” on this subject is a mystery to me, but…. Even there, the main shopping center has a vaguely Colonial Revival design, and I seem to recall it was even more pronounced in the first iteration built years ago for the A&P. The Dunkin’ Donuts across Halls Road is in a building with absurdly tall and narrow columns, which must have been someone’s idea of ‘colonial’ something or other. Here’s the important point: All of that, and much more, has been done by developers in an effort to placate the citizens of Old Lyme and gain the approval of the Zoning Board at a particular point in time. It’s not official, but as a matter of fact the people in town have periodically and fitfully attempted to keep ugly buildings from being built on Halls Road, and to make it look at least somewhat “appropriate” to our small town. But there has never been a formal process. There has never been “fair warning” for developers that such a thing is even an issue (although they quickly find out it is, whether it’s on the statute books or not).

The Design Guidelines and Design Review Board are a way to make the whole visual aspect of development along Halls Road more transparent and open. The guidelines do not regulate anything. They are recommendations from the Review Board to the Zoning Board, which the Zoning Board is expected to take into account as a part of their approval process. The Design Review Board has an advisory role. The Zoning Board makes the final decisions. Then why bother? Because this is an important issue for the majority of people who live here. They don’t want Halls Road to look industrial or urban, or like a service plaza or Disneyland, or New Jersey, or Florida, or Anytown, USA. They want Halls Road to look more like what Old Lyme is: a small, prosperous, rural town on the Connecticut shoreline.

The Design Guidelines make Lyme Street the design model for the future mixed-use Village District. The buildings on Lyme Street span 300 years and cover many different styles, most of them popular in the mid 19th to early 20th centuries. What is most characteristic of the street as a whole is the mix of styles, and the way they fit together. Also, most of the buildings on Lyme Street are good examples of their type. That is: they are proportionate, designed to human scale, not exaggerated or grotesque. That can’t be said of all buildings in this world, but it will be said about any building that is built under the new Design Guidelines. The goal is to encourage good, proportionate, serviceable, and attractive designs that meet professional architectural standards, and NOT to turn Halls Road into some 19th century theme park. It is the town of Old Lyme declaring that, in this district, we want new development to look like it belongs here, and not some other place.

You also seem to take exception to the zoning regulations intended to create a proper mix of retail and residential uses along Halls Road. Let me make it as clear as I can.

New retail space is not an attractive investment for developers, particularly in large malls or shopping centers. Retail businesses are under great pressure from Internet sales; some are failing, and fewer are looking to rent space in these places. The one exception to that general trend is retail embedded in a real, walkable neighborhood. For some reason merchants in such neighborhoods are doing better, and retail space there enjoys a higher demand.

Residential, in contrast, is very attractive to developers, and demand is rising.

The main point of the Halls Road Plan is to bring much-needed small-scale residential to Halls Road in order to create a mixed-use neighborhood that can better support the businesses we depend on, well into the mid 21st century.

We need investment in retail, and we are willing to allow some residential development (which we also need) in order to encourage it.

It is not enough to simply add residential to a vast sea of parking lots and strip centers. We have to do better than that. We have to refashion Halls Road, over time, into something that looks and acts like an organic mixed-use neighborhood, with shops along a main street (Halls Road) and a mix of housing, offices, and retail in the smaller streets nearby. It can’t be made over completely. The Big Y will remain where it is, along with sufficient parking. But Halls Road itself will, over time, become a main street dominated by retail trade — a place where new sidewalks will carry people window shopping or stopping at cafes. Retail businesses would rather be on a main street than tucked away in a strip center where they remain invisible. Pedestrians would rather walk by shops and cafes than beside an empty parking lot. We need to plan for something that works better than what we have today.

Several businesses now located off the road have said they would be glad to occupy new space directly on Halls Road. This is an opportunity for existing property owners as well as new developers.

The Master Plan Report specifies retail on Halls Road with offices and/or residential above or behind, and the zoning is designed to promote that. If the town just said “build anything you want, anywhere” we would not get what we want. We have to guide development to get what we want. If a developer owns a parcel with frontage on Halls Road, the bulk of the buildable frontage (that is: not counting driveways, etc.) must have first floor retail facing Halls Road. The first-floor-retail building (or buildings, if the frontage is very long) must extend along most of the usable frontage. This is to prevent someone who wants to build only residential from putting in one free-standing ATM near the sidewalk and saying “There. I now have retail on Halls Road. Now I can fill the rest of the lot with residential.” If we do not demand that the frontage be devoted to retail space, Halls Road will quickly fill with residential units and other non-retail uses, freezing out the possibility of turning it into a shopping street, and defeating the effort to make Halls Road a viable business district for our future.

Halls Road is a small district: 0.7 miles from end to end. It is hemmed in by wetlands, and development is constrained by a number of other natural limitations. Under the new zoning, the maximum height for buildings along Halls Road is 2 stories plus a usable attic (30′), and only twice that (roughly the height of Boxwoods on Lyme Street) for the tallest buildings allowed further from the road. Forty years from now, at maximum development, Halls Road will still have only a small number of shops and residents. The total usable space in the district is small, and it should be used wisely. The proposed zoning changes support that.

“The primary funder of CT Examiner” seems, from his email (amplified in your article), to be very upset about the fact that the town wants to change the limitations on new building along Halls Road. He is all for mixed use (you didn’t transcribe that part), but apparently only if it doesn’t restrict anyone in any way (especially him). “No restrictions” is unrealistic and counter-productive.

The whole point is to create a new and viable mixed-use neighborhood to keep our retail businesses flourishing. It has to be guided by a unified idea of what Halls Road should become. The new zoning and design guidelines will coordinate the efforts of hundreds of private business decisions, each with its own particulars, made over the course of decades. Without that new coordination, Old Lyme will get nothing, or less than nothing.

The proposed new zoning needs a few specific changes to make it better reflect the intentions of the plan, but the plan itself, and the aim of remaking Halls Road, is the right course for Old Lyme and its future.

Mark Terwilliger
Old Lyme, CT

Terwilliger is the domestic partner of Edie Twining, chair of the Halls Road Improvements Committee


CT Examiner responds: Our editorial policy is to encourage public engagement and to promote responsible planning decisions in Old Lyme (less than 5% of our readership) and elsewhere. The editorial, “Has Anyone Actually Read the New Rules for Halls Road (and Flo Gris)?” was written without review, urging, or guidance by David Kelsey, and without having read email exchanges between committee members.

To date, the extensive planned regulatory changes have not been made available for the public to review online, nor has the Halls Road Improvements Committee held a vote to approve its own plan.

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