About Tonight’s Public Hearing in Old Lyme

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


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Some people come to Old Lyme for the arts, others for the water and nature, for the rest, I guess, it’s the zoning.

And as far as these things go, tonight is shaping up to be a doozy of a meeting, with a new proposal to grant art, philanthropic, or public education nonprofit corporations added flexibility to introduce limited retail, restaurants, housing and recreation on Lyme Street.

That’s not a typo – as one helpful reader wrote in suggest – this new proposal is mostly separate of the ongoing effort to redevelop Halls Road.

Here’s a link to the 642 words to be debated.

Fair warning: By rule, the hearing must close tonight.

As it stands, Lyme Academy of Fine Arts, represented by Terrance Lomme, is leading the charge.

But for most of the last 64 days of the 65-day window for the public hearing, members of the Zoning Commission have been hands off, preferring Lomme and the town’s Historic District Commission to hash things out.

Those negotiations, in two meetings, yielded little compromise other than a 900-foot geographic limit tied to any Old Lyme exit off I-95.

Mostly, it appears that Lomme has been negotiating and revising to win the support of the Florence Griswold Museum, the Roger Tory Peterson Estuary Center and Lyme Art Association – a powerhouse combination if they can all get together on the same page.

Michael Duffy, who leads the Academy, was able to send me a final draft – 642 words – a little before 10 p.m. last night – way late given the hearing will close tonight, but pretty clearly with no intention to keep any of this from the public. That’s also a pretty clear indication that these negotiations are running into overtime.

In comments to me this morning, Duffy said his efforts had been made in “good faith,” but that in his words, “HDC still does not support the proposal notwithstanding that this matter is completely outside of their jurisdiction.”

And it’s true that the day-to-day business of the HDC usually involves more mundane activities – approving signage, roofs, etc. On the balance, the Historic District Commission (and not Zoning or even the Board of Selectmen) organized the first meeting (in the state) on high-speed rail and was tasked with completing a townwide survey of historic properties.

For their part, the co-chairs of the Historic District Commission, Dini Mallory and John Noyes, make the point that their role has been at the invitation of Zoning, and that state statutes “specifically authorize the Historic District Commission to ‘provide information … involving the preservation of the district’; to ‘cooperate with other regulatory agencies,’ such as the Zoning Commission, that are ‘interested in historic preservation’; and to put forward its own ‘planning and zoning proposals.’”

If you’re guessing that tempers are flaring, a bit, you’d be right. All complicated by the fact that many of these organizations span friendships, organizational ties, and donors. By nearly all accounts, advocates and opponents are supportive of the Academy offering food service, and Roger Tory Peterson hosting scientists.

In fact, it’s pretty hard to see where the two sides disagree… except for the rules, and the fact that the nonprofits want to craft them with enough flexibility to allow for unknown future plans, but enough specificity to give them certainty that those plans will be approved.  In the broader world, that would be a pretty tall task, but in Old Lyme, limited to nonprofits and to an 1800-foot circle drawn around exits off I-95, that may be enough for the Academy to win the day.

For my own part, I think it’s clear that a vigorous debate is in the public interest and the approval should be decided on the merits, regardless of whether HDC has jurisdiction. As it stands, no one is questioning the singular role of the Zoning Commission, in the end, to reject or approve the new rules.

All that said, I haven’t had a heck of a lot of time to look at the final wordings, but I have shared previous versions of the regulations with a handful of experts, including a respected land-use attorney, and based on these conversations, I still have two nagging questions that I hope can be answered tonight. A bit of forewarning, they are technical, but basically are an attempt to nail down two issues: what can be approved under the existing regulations, and what discretion with Zoning have if these regulations are approved. In particular,

  1. My understanding is that Café Flo at the Florence Griswold Museum was approved in 2010 administratively – that is without a zoning hearing – as an accessory use to the museum. How does this approval differ from current permissions to operate a cafeteria at Lyme Academy of Fine Arts? Is the approval as an accessory use for Café Flo sufficient for the museum’s future operations, including possible expansion? Would the Zoning Commission, which as far as I know has never questioned the Café Flo approval, give serious consideration to a similar approval (if it does not already exist) for the Academy? And would that approval be sufficient for the Academy?

  2. In 642 words, the regulations include the word “shall,” nine times. The first instance, 5.14.1, appears to grant the Zoning Commission broad deference, allowing several uses (none of them controversial) including “flex public space,” “conference rooms,” etc., only “upon approval.” The second instance, 5.15.2, states simply that “The following accessory uses shall be allowed,” before listing a variety of more debated uses, including retail and restaurant operations.  Do these two instances and sets of uses allow the Zoning Commission equal degrees of discretion? What would the functional difference be if the “may” was substituted for “shall,” in the document?