Ethics Rules Broken in Old Lyme

Surveyors recently on Halls Road in Old Lyme (CT Examiner)


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For the last few years, I have regularly batted down suggestions that a personal profit motive was behind plans to redevelop Old Lyme’s retail district along Halls Road.

No, I’d say, it’s boredom and ego.

If anything, I always thought, the committee’s plans reflected a lack of business acumen, an attitude that bakeries and bookstores and other businesses could be opened by fiat. Notice the letters in support have all been from putative customers — no one strapping on an apron or ponying up a million dollars to invest in a retail business on Halls Road.

And perhaps for that reason, and because we are a small town, CT Examiner has turned a blind eye to a number of “unusual” practices by members of the Halls Road Improvements Committee, that in any other town would be unthinkable. Most obviously, every town communication involving the re-zoning of Old Lyme’s retail district includes an advertisement for retail design services by the chair of the committee. That’s a first, in our experience.

Shortly before the proposed regulations were presented to Zoning for approval, they were amended to accommodate a local housing developer with a specific project in the wings – also, in our experience, unusual outside of public proceedings.

Mostly, you could say, this is just academic.

What is not academic, however, is for one or more members of the Halls Road Improvements Committee to solicit significant paying work from one or more property owners directly under the jurisdiction of the committee. News of that business sideline – clear violations of the town’s ethics code 43-4 (a) (j) — came to me in recent weeks, eyebrows-raised, in the form of a complaint.

Unfortunately, the town has not had a functioning Ethics Commission in more than four years.

Still, it’s hard to profit from work that amounts to a hill of beans. And after it was rejected — first by the Planning Commission, and later by Zoning – that’s what we were left with. Mighty expensive beans.

To be fair, a majority of the Zoning Commission voted in favor of the proposal. Two alternate members were against it. And the alternates carried the day, because the new rules, without the blessing of Planning, required a super majority to pass.

Now Halls Road members are asking for a do-over. And technically that may be possible. We’ve asked three land-use attorneys in the region and one said ‘maybe,’ another ‘likely,’ and the third – a ‘yes.’ Perhaps the slight confusion is because no one seems to recall the last time the statutory 12-month cooling off period was waived. We’ll defer on that to Jane Marsh, who has sat on Old Lyme’s Zoning Commission for about a half-century.

What we can say in our experience is that many votes across the state, including a recent vote approving retail marijuana in Old Saybrook, have been sustained with nary a hint of a do-over after the deciding vote was cast by an alternate — if not, why have alternates?

At some point, we have to ask ourselves, what is the precedent we are setting here with approvals and ethics. Are we going to accept that there are special rules for special people, or is this the normal order for doing business for everyone in Old Lyme?

I don’t want to suggest that many or most of the members of the Halls Road Improvements Committee have broken ethics rules – but for those that have, a good way to start off the process of getting some of these ideas passed, is for the members that have, to come clean about their personal business dealings.

Or better, that after completing its work on Lyme Street, the commission adopt a similar procedure for Halls Road that is free from this taint, and that benefits from the deep knowledge of the Zoning Commission.