Pay Attention to These Three Proposals — and Two Public Hearings — on Monday in Old Lyme

Surveyors on Lyme Street, near the I-95 Exit ramps (CT Examiner)

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On Monday, the Town of Old Lyme will hold two important public hearings.

I don’t want to over-dramatize the stakes of small-town government, but these hearings really will decide on pretty dramatic changes to what the town will allow in its central residential and commercial districts – Lyme Street and Halls Road.

Now, change is not a bad thing in itself, even in Old Lyme, but when they decide to re-jigger the basic building blocks of the town, you really need to pay attention.

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The first proposal you should already be pretty familiar with – those are the changes to Halls Road.

No doubt the proposal has benefited from an entire year of rewriting, including legal advice from one of the better land-use attorneys in the region. Whether it’s a good plan or a bad plan, at least this time it will be a competent and legally-solid plan that deserves serious consideration by the Zoning Commission.

If approved, the plan would give property owners more flexibility to build close to Halls Road and to build housing — and for the town to make Halls Road more walkable and bikeable.

The second proposal is newer, and you’re probably less familiar with it. It’s focused on the nearby Historic District on Lyme Street, though technically the changes would apply anywhere in Old Lyme.

This proposal, called an “overlay zone,” would create a sort of plug-and-play set of rules that would allow significantly more freedom for any nonprofit – or any commercial vendor contracted by a nonprofit — to offer limited housing and retail, restaurants, and recreation.

To be clear, these new uses would require the approval of zoning, but here’s the crucial part – the changes would no longer require proof of a “hardship” – a high bar that Terrance Lomme, the lawyer presenting the proposal, described as nearly insurmountable in a meeting with the Historic District Commission last week.

The overlay idea was first proposed jointly in May by a powerhouse combination of Old Lyme nonprofits including Lyme Academy of Fine Arts, Roger Tory Peterson Center, Lyme Art Association, and the Florence Griswold Museum.

Since then, the coalition has broken up, leaving Lyme Academy of Fine Arts alone to plead the case.

Why the split? We can only make educated guesses. But likely the sticking point is a third proposal waiting in the wings for a groundbreaking expansion of the Florence Griswold Museum, likely to include expanded dining and galleries on the existing campus. That’s not public yet (though it’s been a bit of an open secret for months).

In essence, Lomme argues reasonably enough, that he’s only asking for equal treatment, and to codify the reality on the ground. 

But for the Flo Gris, these new rules may actually constrain what the museum has planned, even as the Historic District Committee and residents along Lyme Street worry that the overlay proposal would unconstrain commercial development and court traffic from I-95, while doing little to help the nonprofit’s bottom line.

As far as the public’s role in all of this, you should demand that these separate projects be considered as a piece – if still as separate proposals — to avoid unforeseen cumulative impacts and to better coordinate any changes to the basic building blocks of the town.

The two hearings will be held in Old Lyme Town Hall on Monday, Nov. 14 starting at 6:30 p.m. There should be opportunities to ask questions and you are encouraged to attend.

Here are few basic questions to start:

  1. Dining, housing, recreation – aren’t these new uses included in the overlay for the Historic District exactly the activities and development proposed along Halls Road?

  2. By failing to coordinate the three proposals, aren’t we killing one bird with two stones by allowing housing development on both Halls Road and Lyme Street? And setting up needless and unfair competition between taxable for-profit businesses on Halls Road and tax-exempt nonprofits opening restaurants and shops on Lyme Street?

  3. Attorneys typically work in the interests their clients, not former clients, or future clients. But in the case of the proposed overlay, Terrance Lomme appears to be asking for zoning approval for an array of uses for a coalition of clients that no longer exists. Would Lomme consider narrowing the proposal to the specific needs of Lyme Academy of Fine Arts, if that would ease approval? And if so, what uses are essential to the academy and why?

  4. On what basis was Café Flo approved for the Florence Griswold Museum? What are the current limits on this use — in terms of size, hours, indoor and outdoor dining and seasonal operation? What, if any, approvals would be required to allow indoor year-round dining?

  5. Does Lyme Academy of Fine Arts require zoning approval for dining? And if so, does any existing avenue for approval offer a reasonable alternative to the overlay? If not, why is a restaurant, as a new use, included in the overlay?

  6. One of the distinguishing features of the eastern shore of the Connecticut River from Old Lyme to Vermont and New Hampshire is the relative absence of light pollution compared to developed towns as little as half a mile to the west. What kind of lighting would three proposals suggest, or require? Is any of the lighting proposed along Halls Road, for example, optional?

  7. Given the likely allowance for housing or condominiums off Halls Road and along the Lieutenant River (proposal one), and plans to build new galleries, a restaurant space and parking on roughly the opposite side of the Lieutenant (proposal three), what efforts have been taken to coordinate the planning in terms of height limitations, sightlines, and impacts to river and paddlers?


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