NIANTIC — After hearing a third round of passionate testimony from residents, nearly all in opposition to demolishing three older buildings on Main Street to make way for the construction of a three-story mixed-use building, the East Lyme Zoning Commission voted 4-2 to approve the project Thursday night.
A number of the commissioners expressed reservations that the project met the zoning requirements but did not fit the future vision of downtown Niantic.
“I would not want to see a string of these along both sides of the street. I think we do need smaller buildings. However, I think that there is room for one more,” said Anne Thurlow, commission chair.
The three-story mixed use building proposed by ZDM Properties LLC, which is owned by developer David Preka of Advanced Group LLC, would require demolishing cafe SoL, a Victorian house with four apartments, and a one-story commercial building at 338-348 Main St. The new building would have seven street parking spaces. The 26 parking spaces in the back would be accessed through highly traveled Baptist Lane, leading to the Hole In The Wall beach and the boardwalk.
Thurlow said she would have a hard time tearing down the town’s cinema building, the Main Street Grill or the Morton House in downtown Niantic, but, “we’re talking about a rundown apartment building … and two smaller buildings with no architectural value,” noting that she loved the Norton building where Sift Bake Shop is located and that the shops there were thriving.
“I just think if it meets the codes, and it meets the regulations that it should be approved,” Thurlow said.
Commission Secretary Terry Granatek said he was in favor of the project because it fit the zoning regulations, but echoed Thurlow that “these should not be lining Main Street.”
He admitted that the project is “very, very tight on parking” and that the commission needed to take a hard look at parking exceptions that are allowed in mixed-use buildings.
“Whether we like it or not, the project meets all our laws,” commissioner William Dwyer said. “The applicant came along and fulfilled every requirement that we stated we needed. I find it hard to disagree with them and turn it down. I can only see going to court after. … So I have to say I would go along with it.”
But commissioner Deborah Jett-Harris argued that part of the general statutes included preventing overcrowding and lessening congestion on public highways.
“I just think that it’s really gonna cause an undue concentration of population, and it’s going to affect the traffic, and that area that’s already bad in the summertime,” she said.
Commissioner Terence Donovan said he wanted an updated traffic study since the applicant presented one from the year 2000. Jett-Harris also asked whether an updated traffic study could be performed, considering how many residents had expressed concerns about increased congestion.
Granatek said another study could be done, but that the project’s impact on overall traffic was probably low.
“I can tell you that the traffic is horrible. It’s horrible. But in terms of a number for this project, I don’t see 26 residents having an impact. We have thousands and thousands of cars traveling up and down Main Street every day to get from Old Lyme to Waterford. We’re talking about for the most part through traffic, that’s what the traffic study is going to pinpoint,” he said.
Alternate commissioner David Schmitt, who replaced commissioner Norman Peck III throughout the hearings, said traffic will continue to worsen for the next four years because of the realignment of Exit 75 on Interstate 95 and the upgrades along Route 161.
“People are getting off at the Rocky Neck connector and coming down [Route] 156 In order to circumvent I-95. And this project won’t have any impact on that traffic,” he said.
Another concern of commission members was the unsigned application. William Mulholland, zoning official for the town, confirmed on Friday that the applicant had signed the application during the April 13 meeting.
The project was approved with Donovan casting the sole opposing vote.
Before the vote, Engineer Norm Thibeault, who represented the applicant, responded to concerns raised at the project’s April 6 and 13 public hearings. He said restaurant use had been stricken from the application and that the project qualified for an exemption to a Coastal Area Management review.
Thibealt said the project will widen the end of the Baptist Lane from 21 feet to 23 feet and remove a utility pole, which could ease vehicular traffic through what is now a choke point. He said the applicant had offered to build a sidewalk along the west side of Baptist Lane but the town engineer advised against it.
Project architect Peter Springsteel said he had reclassified three of the one-bedroom units as efficiencies to match the town’s square footage requirements, adjusting the count to three efficiency units, four one-bedroom units, and two two-bedroom units on each floor.
Public testimony before the vote continued along the themes of congestion, parking, the height and bulk of the proposed building and the demolition of older buildings, including the popular cafe SoL.
Mary Day, a lifelong Niantic resident, said the project brought to mind “Big Yellow Taxi” by Joni Mitchell, and the line “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone. They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”
Rose Ann Hardy, a town selectwoman who spoke as a citizen, said the project was a lovely building in the wrong spot. She said in the Bayside building at 377 Main St. – across the street from the new project – condos, parking and shops were promised, but the small businesses in those spaces closed because rents were too high.
“This is a crossroads. … We don’t want to be Mystic. A lot is on your shoulders. You six are the ones who will determine the future of downtown,” she told the commission.
This story was corrected to reflect a vote of 4-2 in favor of approving the development