After Opposing Overlays, Old Lyme Zoning Will Rewrite Regs and Tweak Numbers

Lyme Academy of Fine Arts (Google)


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OLD LYME — In two long-awaited, closely-watched decisions on overlay districts, Zoning Commission members pivoted Monday night toward rewriting the amendments – in part or in whole – in an effort to keep control over the town’s zoning regulations. 

The large meeting room at town hall, which had been packed last month for public hearings for both the Arts District Overlay District and the Halls Road Overlay District, was relatively empty Monday night as the commission deliberated. 

First up was the Arts District Overlay, an application by the Lyme Academy of Fine Arts “for the purposes of creating a more flexible arts and social district or districts.” 

Jane Marsh, secretary of the commission, opened the discussion by suggesting that the commission write its own regulations for the overlay instead of approving the academy’s application. 

“I find this regulation to have some merit underneath but I don’t really like it as an overlay zone. I would rather approach this by directly amending the regulation,” she said. 

She said she did not like the idea of allowing “existing uses” since “we did not have a good database of what existed, so any regulation is perilous for this commission because we don’t have details of what exists.” 

She said that some uses were “not necessarily the subject of individual approvals” and yet “somehow it happened.” 

“Those things can happen without a revolution taking place. I’d rather control it directly by new set of regulations on a certain area… We can delineate a new area if we want, I’d be much more comfortable using direct regulation to accomplish what these institutions want to do.”

Marsh said she was not comfortable with the floating zone. “It bothers me as a land use person,” she said. 

Initially the application came from the four nonprofits clustered around upper Lyme Street –  Lyme Academy of Fine Arts, the Roger Tory Peterson Center, Lyme Art Association and the Florence Griswold Museum, but the latter two withdrew in July. By November it was solely the Lyme Academy – with strong opposition from the Historic District Commission, where the Academy is located. 

Mike Miller, Zoning commission member, said the process had been “rushed and chaotic.”

“It changed so many times… we’re not really looking at the same application as the one that first came in,” he said. “We owe it to the town not to do this quickly. This is a major change to the town.” 

Miller said that he had heard from residents that the special exemption that would allow certain uses in the overlay district would in essence cause the residents of Lyme St. to be held to a higher standard. He also said he was concerned that the words “recreational” and “wonderful” were not yet defined in the regulation. 

“I’d like the opportunity to review this with input from other town commissions. At the end of the day, I think we will have something that will benefit nonprofits because we want to see them stay in town,” Miller said. 

Zoning chair Paul Orzel said he had been frustrated at times by the pendulum swinging between lack of cooperation and cooperation. 

“It makes sense to set up a small subgroup, to meet with the groups that would be participating in this cultural zone if we’re going to create something with meaning – a common statement of purpose, what do we want to do and why,” he said.

He said it was important to understand “all the perspectives, including the HIstoric District Commission.” 

Marsh said that no one has objected to the idea that Lyme Art Academy and the nonprofits need zoning changes. 

“They need something, but needs to be more direct and more surgical,” she said. 

“This left me with the feeling of ‘trust me,’ and while I would like to be able to trust people, I like the idea of a regulation that says what it is, and it’s that they will be able to rely on,” said Marsh. 

Marsh said she would like to enlist the town attorney Matthew Willis in crafting the regulations. 

Mary Jo Nosal, Zoning Commission member, who said she supported the amendment as written, emphasized the importance of the commission writing the new regulations without delay. 

“I did feel there was an effort to meet in the middle and I hope that whatever decision is made, if we come up with our regulation that we acknowledge the fact that we’re all here to make the uses of our land successful as well as the businesses in town.” 

In a 4 to 1 vote, the commission opposed the approval of the Arts District Overlay as written. Nosal was the sole vote of approval. 

Halls Road (Credit: Yale Urban Design Workshop)

“This one can be tweaked”

Next was the Halls Road Overlay District proposal, with the Town of Old Lyme as applicant. 

Knapp had prepared an approval statement that included aspects of the proposal that had been matched with goals from the town’s Plan of Conservation and Development. 

Nosal moved to approve the proposal and initially no commission members seconded. But after a short discussion, Miller seconded.

In discussion, Marsh said that while the regulation was “extremely well written,” she disagreed with the philosophy behind it. She said the regulation would allow massive structures on Halls Road, which was inconsistent with the pattern of development on Lyme St., the model for the overlay. 

“Personally I don’t really think that we desire that intensity of development in this area, large buildings where there with no spaces in between,” said Marsh. “I would like to see them broken up, even with pathways through. We don’t have that cheek-to-jowl development on Lyme St.” 

Marsh said that the frontage on Halls Road would be consumed by one “great long building” and that she would not approve a design of such bulk. 

“The other thing is that this is an already developed area,” Marsh said. “It’s never been the most beautiful shopping area… To impose a whole new scheme in an area that’s already fully developed could have unintended consequences.”

She also said that the limitations of sewer and water capacity meant that intense development was not possible. 

“I hate giving someone backpocket approval but then tell them no because we don’t have sewage treatment there,” Marsh said. “I would like to somehow consider a way to reduce the intensity and break it up a little more so I wouldn’t have that solid wall of storefronts.” 

Marsh also questioned whether an overlay district or floating zone would inadvertently allow uses that were otherwise banned – like gas stations or the sale of cannabis. 

Knapp said that if something is specifically prohibited in the town regulations, then generally it was not possible to overrule a specific regulation. 

Nosal questioned whether some of these legal questions were brought up previously. 

Knapp said the Halls Road proposal was sent to Attorney Willis and that he made a series of comments that the applicant addressed to make sure the proposal fit the parameters of Old Lyme’s regulations. 

“To my knowledge he did not address Jane’s comment because no one asked to look at that issue at the time,” Knapp said.

Nosal said that the Halls Road overlay had gone through legal review and that the Halls Road Improvements Committee had hired an attorney, and architectural and engineering firms in an effort to create a strong application. 

“Halls Road is a natural place for mixed use development. Lyme St. was mentioned as the look. The size of the buildings can be made a condition of approval,” she said. “It’s time that we address the sad look of the land on that street – we do want to make it more of a center of town rather than a passthrough for traffic.”

Nosal said the commission would need to adapt the regulations to what the community has said they want and “acknowledge all the effort that has gone into this so far.” 

Miller asked whether the commission could turn down a Costco-sized building if one were proposed on Halls Road – and avoid future litigation. 

Knapp said the commission could use special permit criteria to evaluate a proposal. 

“The overlay offers the opportunity for someone to present their project to you. There would be commission discretion but if they met all of your standards you would need to be very clear what was inadequate in the application… if they meet your criteria and you deny, then must be very clear why,” Knapp said. 

Marsh said she wanted to create maximum lengths, heights and square footage in the proposal to keep the bulk of the buildings low. 

“I think this one can be tweaked,” she said. 

Miller said that the Halls Road shops were nearly all occupied, but retail trends – like the nearly empty Crystal Mall – showed that residential units above commercial provided a greater incentive to builders, but the size of the buildings needed to fit Old Lyme.

“We don’t want big structures going in, this isn’t Madison, we’re Old Lyme,” he said.

The commission decided to table the discussion of the Halls Road Overlay until the March 13 meeting. 

Marsh urged commission members to come prepared to fill in the application with specific numbers for length, height and separation between buildings.