Old Lyme Nonprofits Propose Formalizing Retail and Apartment Regulations on Lyme St.

Members of the Old Lyme Zoning Commission met to discuss the idea of allowing new retail and apartment uses in the town's historic district


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OLD LYME — On Tuesday night at Town Hall, an Essex-based lawyer, Terrance Lomme, discussed a draft plan with members of the town’s zoning commission that he said would simply codify the existing uses of properties on Lyme St. currently owned by four of the town’s most prominent nonprofits.

Lomme presented the plan on behalf of the Roger Tory Peterson Center, at the former Bee & Thistle, the Florence Griswold Museum, Lyme Art Association, and Lyme Academy of Fine Arts.

The unusual gesture of organizational unity underscored the stakes of the proposal, which on the one hand could help ensure the economic viability of the organizations – a point made by Michael Barnes, an alternate on the commission, and Dan Bourret, the town’s zoning enforcement officer – but could also  expand uses in the residential district on Lyme St. – a counterpoint made by Commissioner Jane Marsh.

An informal conversation with members of the Zoning Commission typically allows applicants to sound out members of the board, and gather advice for possible revisions before a formal proposal and hearings are scheduled at a later date. In this case, the friendly back-and-forth betrayed little clue about how the commission would ultimately vote on the matter.

Lomme presented his case as one of writing into regulation activities already allowed in the residential area on Lyme St. between the Roger Tory Peterson Center and the Lyme Academy of Fine Arts.

“The proposal is to be able to use these properties for what, in fact, they are used for now. We are not looking to change the regulations or to expand the regulations,” he explained.

The proposal would potentially allow apartments at the former Bee & Thistle, for example, to house visiting scholars, allow a restaurant in the academy’s cafeteria, and open the academy’s art store to the public.

But while not speaking against the proposal, Marsh pushed Lomme and members of the commission to acknowledge that — stripped of its connection to the town’s cultural institutions — the proposal amounted to a significant change of use.

“The fact that they are related to [the Florence Griswold et al] doesn’t mean anything to me anymore. Now you’ve got Lyme St. with apartment buildings or apartments and retail added to it. So, the Zoning Commission should be considering whether or not… it doesn’t really matter whether they are related or not. If they are open and used by the public, it becomes a new land use,” said Marsh. “And to have a land use only thinly covered by its association with something nonprofit, or something artistic or educational… it will change Lyme St. So I just think that the commission has to think, ‘would they do this, without that sugar-coating on the outside. Would they do that?’”

Bourret offered suggestions that appeared aimed at satisfying these and other zoning concerns raised by Marsh and others, but also raised fears that the alternative to this proposal was not necessarily the status quo.

“Somebody could come here, you know, if these aren’t viable entities. Somebody can come here with an 8-30g [affordable housing] application,” warned Bourret. “So, this is one way to keep these entities viable. You know, the University of New Haven left the Art Academy, and they’re trying to put the Art Academy back into a good use, which is much better than what could be there. That would be a very desirable property for a different type of use, that you guys can lose control over.”