OLD LYME — The Halls Road Improvements Committee held the first of two virtual workshops on Wednesday to explain how a proposed overlay district could affect business and property owners.
“The C30 commercial zone that’s there now would remain. Then we have an overlay zone that lies over that [and] allows additional land uses, additional density, more lenient parking requirements and a number of other things that a developer or property owner could propose to use to build new buildings on their property” Jef Fasser, a landscape architect with BSC Group, told zoom attendees, who included two Halls Road business owners .
Fasser said the overlay zone allows current businesses to stay where they are while allowing the roadway to change from a vehicle-dominated street to more of a village feel over time.
“I want to make the point that this doesn’t mean that existing businesses or buildings or properties have to change,” he said. “It provides an option where landowners can come in with a project under this overlay zone criteria and guidelines and propose a project that will add to what they have there now or replace it if they wanted to.”
In the overlay district, property owners or developers who want to construct new buildings that contain residential units will be required to build them so that they front Halls Road, with the facade stretching the width of the parcel minus driveways, side yard setbacks, sidewalks and outdoor areas for customers.
If owners construct a building smaller than the parcel frontage width, they would not be allowed to develop residential units further back on their property until they had filled up the majority of their frontage, said Fasser. Property owners would have the right to petition the town to subdivide their parcels if they wanted to build in smaller segments along Halls Road, depending on zoning regulations.
Commercial use is required on the first floor of the new buildings fronting Halls Road, which is a change from previous planning, said Fasser.
“At first we were saying it had to be [just] retail on the first floor. Now we’re saying it needs to be commercial, [which] opens up other types of uses as defined in your zoning ordinance,” he said.
Examples of commercial uses besides retail include hair salons, physical therapy offices, bakeries and brew pubs.
The workshop session included a discussion about the decreasing viability of retail spaces given online shopping, raising the question of the wisdom of including commercial spaces.
Edie Twining, chair of the committee, said it was important to require commercial space on the first floor of development to prevent the new buildings from becoming entirely residential, which would not fit the village atmosphere that was envisioned in the Halls Road masterplan.
“Don’t think that retail isn’t viable. In order to maintain the most productive types of retail, having a walkable, browsable arrangement of buildings is going to be much more productive than having a mall or a strip center where people are driving from thing to thing … The one thing they can’t get online is human interaction. You can’t just have chance meetings with a neighbor if you’re buying everything online and that’s why a town center is so important,” Twining said.
While the overlay district regulations would not allow gas stations, a developer could still build a gas station provided they met the requirements of the current commercial zoning language, Fasser said. But, if the developer wanted to build residential units along the road on that parcel — which is allowed only in the overlay district — then they would be prevented from building a gas station, Fasser said.
The overlay district regulations include restricting buildings that front Halls Road to a maximum of 2.5 stories or a height of 35 feet. New buildings that are set 60 feet back from Halls Road are allowed a maximum of 3.5 stories or a height of 45 feet.
Other zoning changes would apply to maximum lot coverage, including impervious surfaces, which is 55 percent under the current commercial zone and will be 75 percent in the overlay zone.
“This is what we consider an incentive for someone to propose new development under the overlay zone — they’ll be able to put in higher density, more square footage on a particular parcel,” said Fasser.
The idea, he said, was to develop Halls Road with businesses that are not highway-oriented and to keep the look within the character of Old Lyme, as stated in the town’s Plan of Conservation and Development.
“At the same time the town is applying for funding to do roadway improvements as well as open space improvements along Halls Road,” said Fasser. “They’re trying to show the property owners and interested developers that the town is investing in this corridor also by adding sidewalks and landscaping lighting and other things that really give it a village feel in the public realm.”
Howard Margules, a committee member, said connectivity between Halls Road and the arts district would benefit both communities.
“We want to be able to have synergy and leverage that, so by having the connectivity and a very viable, vibrant Halls Road, we can promote the arts community and also with a vibrant arts community they could add to Halls Road,” he said. “This is going to create a basis for real economic development that fits the community because people told us the arts are extremely important.”
Rebekah Beaulieu, director of the Florence Griswold Museum, who was on the call, said Lyme Street is becoming increasingly well known as a cultural center. She said the Roger Tory Peterson Center, the Lyme Art Association and the renewed Lyme Academy of Fine Arts are contributing to the energy of the arts district.
“This is a really, really important moment for all of us in the arts district as well as on historic Lyme Street. I look at this as especially the inclusion of walkable streetscapes and having more pedestrian activity as something that benefits not just the commercial viability of Halls Road but also the cultural viability of Old Lyme,” she said.
The overlay district will include design guidelines so that a developer can understand the town’s vision for the look and visual impact of the new buildings, Fasser said. Projects in the overlay district will be presented to a Design Review Board that will have an advisory role to the Zoning Commission.
Steven Calcagni, a developer, who was on the call with his son, John Calcagni, asked whether the 65-day review schedule of the Design Review Board could be shortened.
Fasser said changing the length the review schedule was under consideration. He said that developers were encouraged to meet with the Design Review Board ahead of time to receive input before submitting a formal application.
John Bysko, a business owner who owns a condo space at 100 Halls Road, told the committee that he liked the look of the project but doubted it could be financed.
“Who is going to come up with the $200 million to do this project?” he asked.
Twining did not answer how the project would be funded but commented that she had seen overwhelming public support for diversifying the types of housing in Old Lyme, evidenced by several surveys and public meetings, and that it made sense to put it in the town center.
Later in the meeting, Bysko commented that business owners on Halls Road had been waiting to see the plans of the committee and to gauge whether developers would be interested. He reiterated that he thought the project was financially undoable.
“I understand it looks pretty when you don’t see cars from the road, but economically, it’s just from my perspective so unfeasible to do that. If we moved our building, we’d have to tear it down, rebuild it. If the building’s worth a million and a half, $2 million, now we’re going to tear it down and somebody can spend another 2 million bucks — you’re not going to get your money back by putting in office rental units on the third floor,” he said.
Bysko also asked whether Old Lyme will be the first of this type of project or whether there were examples that had been executed successfully — or even started — in towns similar in size and character to Old Lyme.
Fasser said the committee’s attorney, William Sweeney, who has been hired to review the language of the overlay district, has worked on similar projects.
“So it’ll be a good question for him. So maybe that’s our carrot to get you to tune in next week. We’ll have a better answer for you,” Fasser said.
Twining said the goal of the committee is to present the overlay district to the Zoning Commission in March and receive approval by summer.
Click here to see the overlay district presentation.
The Halls Road Improvements Committee will hold a second zoom meeting for businesses and property owners on Feb. 10 at from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Click here to find the zoom link.