Halls Road Committee Meets to Debate Next Steps, Erred on Zoning Role

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OLD LYME —  The Halls Road Improvements Committee regrouped on Thursday night for the first time since its draft zoning changes to the town’s central business district were withdrawn hours before a Nov. 8 hearing.

The proposed zoning changes have been the subject of contentious debate across social media and local newspapers, with advocates for and against the initial proposal alleging variously incompetence, conflict of interest, a lack of transparency, and partisan politics.

From the start, Edie Twining, chair of the committee, tried to focus members on steps to advance the project, rather than on rehashing that contentious debate or reviewing procedural missteps by the committee.

During the meeting Twining and other members of the committee, acknowledged a lack of understanding of the Zoning process, which Twining said was the result of confusing advice from the town’s land use coordinator and zoning chair.

“I just wanted to start the meeting by saying we’ve had a lot of political stuff going back and forth on this zoning question, and for whatever reasons that were going on, I think we need to get back on track and see what we’re doing… I just want to make some plans going forward,” said Twining.

The approach drew a quick response from David Kelsey, a committee member and the town’s Board of Finance chair. 

“So, you think it’s political and not procedural?” asked Kelsey.

“I thought that was the kind of assistance that we would get, if we, the committee and the subcommittee, would put together a document, doing the best we can, not as zoning professionals, but having decent advice. As it turns out, what actually happens is that you are applying just like any other citizen or property owner who was asking for a variance. So this wasn’t really any different than that,” Thompson said.

Twining told Kelsey she didn’t want to get into that. 

“My main point here is let’s get onto a positive track, let’s go forward and see what we need to do,” she said. 

Kelsey agreed.

“I just want to see what we need to do next. I think that’s more productive than all the other stuff that’s happened in the past,” she said. 

Twining distributed a handout charting the committee’s work– past work on one side, and future work on the other. 

The chart detailed email correspondence by Twining to committee members on Aug. 26, that included the original draft language of the proposed zoning changes, but which received no comments or response. 

Twining later forwarded the regulations to Griswold, and a first hearing on the regulations was held on Oct. 12. 

“[Zoning] can’t be advisory, so that was one thing that was unclear to us. We had been told by Dan that the place to make revisions was from the result of public hearings and that’s what we were aiming to do,” said Twining. 

“Before that was figured out or concerned about, it was signed by Tim Griswold. We did the first presentation on the 12th of October and then the proposal was withdrawn the day of a second hearing,” she said. “So, here we are. And the question is, how do we proceed with the rezoning of Halls Road?”

Over the next 90 minutes, Twining, Kelsey and other members of the committee and the public debated an ongoing lack of participation, attendance and communication — with Twining pressing committee members to attend monthly meetings, special meetings, open houses, town meetings and hearings — when and how the committee should seek preliminary approval of the plans from the state Department of Transportation, whether affected property owners were sufficiently aware of the proposed regulations, and the pros and cons and legal constraints on collaboration with the Zoning Commission.

“If you can’t attend, you need to notify the chair in a timely way. We shut down three meetings this past year because we had no attendance — we didn’t have a quorum, we didn’t have an answer from people about whether they were coming to the meetings. It’s indicative of issues with the committee — I think we need to get a better commitment from people,” Twining said.

Twining asked for a commitment from the committee that emails would be answered within three days. 

Kelsey questioned the assumption that a lack of response by committee members would amount to their approval. 

“That is a deemed approval of changing zoning for people’s property rights,” he pointed out.

Twining directed members to the flipside of the handout, which included a flow chart to “continue to revise zoning to create the Halls Road Village District.” 

“I think in order to get this new village district to be something that people, including property owners, which are the bread and butter of this project, we need to make sure we have conversations with all the important players here to make sure that we can build something that is something that people can live with,” said Twining.

Twining proposed that the committee hold a public workshop, as well as meetings for key stakeholders as needed or requested.  

“If you can’t attend, you need to notify the chair in a timely way. We shut down three meetings this past year because we had no attendance — we didn’t have a quorum, we didn’t have an answer from people about whether they were coming to the meetings. It’s indicative of issues with the committee — I think we need to get a better commitment from people,” Twining said.

Kelsey questioned whether property owners had even received the proposed regulations. 

“This is where the rubber meets the road. I’m pretty sure that the property owners have not gotten the proposed regulations,” he said. 

In reply, Twining pointed out that there was no legal requirement to notify affected property owners beyond a public notice in a newspaper. 

Kelsey questioned whether Matt Prosser, owner of the Big Y shopping center, had received a copy of the new regulations.

Twining said that he had. 

Twining explained that the committee sent notices to property owners by certified mail about a week before a second hearing date before the Zoning Commission on Nov. 8.

Kelsey, who owns affected property at 2 Huntley Road and 99 Halls Road, said he only received a notice on the day of the hearing.

A committee member, Ray Thompson, said he had expected that the Zoning Commission would be able to freely make changes to the proposed regulation, but had since learned that the committee’s current approach would constrain Zoning Commission members from collaborating on the regulations,”

“I thought that was the kind of assistance that we would get, if we, the committee and the subcommittee, would put together a document, doing the best we can, not as zoning professionals, but having decent advice. As it turns out, what actually happens is that you are applying just like any other citizen or property owner who was asking for a variance. So this wasn’t really any different than that,” Thompson said.

Thompson said the committee was facing a dilemma because it had paid for a document from BSC and more work needed to be done. 

“We’re on a knife’s edge because we’re going to start spending additional money to have a zoning attorney work, and it’s going to be expensive. So, we’re going to need money. And if we do all that, and spend another, you know, $30,000 or whatever and it’s turned down, we’re going to be idiots,” he said.

Kelsey agreed that it was important to hire an attorney to review and revise the text amendment. 

Twining said the committee had received confusing information about the role of zoning commissioners from Dan Bourret, land use coordinator for the town and Paul Orzel, chair of the Zoning Commission. 

“[Zoning] can’t be advisory, so that was one thing that was unclear to us. We had been told by Dan that the place to make revisions was from the result of public hearings and that’s what we were aiming to do,” said Twining. 

Howard Margules, a member of the committee, said he wanted to see collaboration between the Zoning Commission and the Halls Road Improvements Committee on the application, which he said would produce a better product and could save money.

Kelsey said he supported hiring a zoning attorney or finding a grant to pay for one. 

“What are we changing [in terms of] people’s property rights? What can they do now? What can they not do? There’s a lot of good stuff in here. But there’s a lot of ‘shalls,’ which means you have to — and that’s a large part of the issues that I have,” Kelsey said. 

Deb Czarnecki, a committee member, asked if the consultant BSC Group had ever met with the entire committee to review the entire proposal. 

After a series of heated remarks between committee members, Twining tried to calm the group. 

“This is not about pointing fingers or playing badminton. I just want to move forward and get some decent suggestions on how we go forward. I think a big piece of this, too, is talking with property owners,” she said.

Twining said the challenge was how to introduce residential development in the form of mixed-use, given that many developers would rather just build housing.

“We want to get this in as great shape as we possibly can with as many people on board, with a lot of good things that are in here, prior to having the scariest thing that can possibly happen as a property owner — you have your zoning changed,” said Kelsey.

“So how do you keep this from turning into a bunch of multifamily residential units fronting Halls Road? It’s a difficult situation. How do you give people what they want, but still make sure that we get what the masterplan is calling for?.. which is to make it a town center.” Twining asked members.  

Kelsey advised members that the regulations should be properly vetted by an attorney before being presented to property owners.

“We want to get this in as great shape as we possibly can with as many people on board, with a lot of good things that are in here, prior to having the scariest thing that can possibly happen as a property owner — you have your zoning changed,” he said.

Twining said that in 1960, the town had changed the zoning of Lyme Street and Halls Road, which left all of the existing commercial buildings on Lyme Street non-conforming with current zoning.

Twining pointed out that the building that houses the Chocolate Shell is limited in terms of how the owners can now use the property. 

Kelsey said that’s exactly what the proposed regulations would do to commercial buildings on Halls Road. 

“That’s what we’re doing here. It’s scary and that’s why it needs to be so carefully done,” Kelsey said. 

Twining said the regulations “were expected to change” and it was time to move forward.

“We’re here now. Okay, let’s just not worry about if and when and all that. Let’s just go forward,” she said. 

Kelsey said he was glad he and Twining were in agreement about changes and improvements.

“This is an excellent process so I appreciate that you’re taking the input of the committee,” he said. 

Twining asked for a vote on the procedural flow chart.

“I don’t know what the impetus for all of this development is. In reality, the town doesn’t gain that much, except for on looks, maybe a little higher value of property taxes. But in reality, the towns never really increase their tax base on businesses,” said Cinami

But Margules questioned whether Kelsey, as a property owner on Halls Road and Huntley Road, should vote on the issue.

Kelsey agreed to recuse himself, but made a motion in support of the process.

During public comment, Steve Cinami raised concerns about possible takings by eminent domain. He also questioned how many property owners on Halls Road actually wanted the new zoning. 

Cinami said the people he’s talked to are happy with the town the way it is. 

“I don’t know what the impetus for all of this development is. In reality, the town doesn’t gain that much, except for on looks, maybe a little higher value of property taxes. But in reality, the towns never really increase their tax base on businesses,” he said. 

Chris Carter, said what was missing was a traffic study for Halls Road. 

“It feels like the elephant in the room… because if you’ve noticed the traffic that goes by on Halls Road the way I have — the overflow from 95 south and north at all times of the year is absolutely mind-boggling. The dump truck traffic. The commercial traffic that’s pouring in and out of Old Lyme — either on 156, or coming through — is mind-boggling,” Carter said. 

Kelsey questioned why the committee hadn’t brought the proposal in front of the Department of Transportation to work on changes like parking.

Margules said that the consultants had advised the committee not to approach the department with a partial proposal.

“It feels like the elephant in the room… because if you’ve noticed the traffic that goes by on Halls Road the way I have — the overflow from 95 south and north at all times of the year is absolutely mind-boggling. The dump truck traffic. The commercial traffic that’s pouring in and out of Old Lyme — either on 156, or coming through — is mind-boggling,” Carter said. 

Kelsey replied that the committee had more than a partial proposal.

Twining said the Department of Transportation is aware of what Old Lyme is trying to do. 

“The grant process is where we get them to actually pay attention and recognize what they’re willing to do. And with that comes a grant. That’s what I understand. If you want to understand it better, please call Kurt Prochorena from BSC,” she said.

With nearly every member talking at once, Czarnecki asked if Prochorena could come to the December meeting to explain the proposal.

Twining agreed to invite Prochorena to the Dec. 9 meeting.

Editor’s note: David Kelsey is the primary funder of CT Examiner.

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