OLD LYME — A chat between two board chairs signals the first steps in restarting a plan to allow construction of mixed-use apartment complexes in the town’s retail district. The plan, proposed by the Halls Road Improvements Committee, was narrowly rejected by the town’s Zoning Commission in March.
On Thursday night, Halls Road Chair Edie Twining told members of her committee that she was encouraged by Paul Orzel, chair of Zoning, to quickly resubmit the plan for a vote by his commission.
By state statute, after being rejected by a commission, an applicant would usually need to wait for a 12-month “cooling off period” to expire before resubmitting a plan for approval.
That rule can be waived by vote of Zoning.
According to Twining, the Zoning Commission had offered to waive the 12-month delay given the already lengthy review of the plan. Twining said she had spoken with Orzel about the matter, and that he had spoken with Eric Knapp, the zoning enforcement officer for the town.
“I actually called and talked to Paul and he said, ‘I hope you’re going to reapply.’ And I said, ‘Well, yeah, we’d like to and we’d like to know whether we can do it before our year is up.’ And he said, ‘Let me talk to Eric.’ And he talked to Eric, and got back to me and said, ‘It’s fine, you can do it.’”
CT Examiner was unable to reach Orzel prior to publication to confirm details of the conversation.
Twining told the committee that she didn’t think a waiver was unprecedented, “especially since we did take seven months to get through this thing.”
Sharp questions but a limited mandate for Planning
Earlier on Thursday, the committee, led by chair Edie Twining, met with the town’s Planning Commission to address concerns raised in its unanimous negative referral of the project last November.
That referral proved crucial on March 27, when a 3-2 vote in favor of the plan by members of Zoning failed to overcome a needed supermajority for proposals lacking the prior approval of Planning.
During Thursday’s discussion with Planning, Twining explained that the overlay district was aimed at helping the town keep its commercial district by adding two floors of residential units above first-floor commercial spaces in buildings set close to the road, calling it a scenario that made it possible for “a developer to be interested.”
Planning Chair Harold Thompson asked Twining why affordable housing was included in the 2021 Plan of Conservation and Development vision for Halls Road, but was not part of the proposed overlay district plan. Thompson added that the town’s Affordable Housing Commission had sent a letter expressing this concern.
Twining said her committee “purposely steered clear” of adding affordable housing to the overlay district, but that the committee’s attorney, William Sweeney, advised them that the 8-30g statute would allow for affordable housing.
Thompson replied that the 8-30g statute allows developers to bypass many town regulations – a less desirable way to add affordable housing.
“So, when you’re trying to get structures that are basically very similar to existing structures, reflecting the character of the town, 8-30g tends to take that apart,” said Thompson.
Much of the detail will be up to the appetite of the developer, said Twining.
“Halls Road is a finite piece of property, it’s 7/10’s of a mile, so the fact that you’re creating this carrot, so to speak, of multi-family housing in the overlay, it does attract a developer that wants to make a profit,” Twining explained.
Twining told commission members that apartments looking out over the Lieutenant River will likely bring in higher rents, and those over commercial spaces will be more affordable – though not necessarily meeting the state’s definition of affordable.
“We just didn’t want to run into this problem where it’s so difficult to get this passed,” she said.
Planning member Chris Kerr asked how the required 15-foot setback from Halls Road was calculated and asked if the Halls Road Committee would be open to increasing the setback.
Twining said she measured the distance from the road to the ice cream shop on Lyme St. for the setback in the overlay district, which would be from zero to 15 feet.
“Right now it’s 60 feet to make sure you get lots of parking lots in front of your buildings. That’s something we don’t want … the idea is to have a streetscape like on Lyme Street,” she said.
She said development along Halls Road would likely be intermittent and unpredictable, but the idea was to “make sure what gets built is close to the street.”
Kerr asked whether Twining already had a developer in mind for Halls Road.
Twining responded, “Absolutely not. That’s going to be a whole new committee that will need to be formed … it would be good for the town to create a committee to help look for developers.”
Planning member Todd Machnik asked whether Twining and the committee had shown the plans to the Connecticut Department of Transportation and received approval to build in the right of way on Halls Road, which is also Route 1, a state road.
“Just to remind you, it’s their road, so what you want to want to do, you’ve got no say. It’s what they say you’re allowed to do. So before you go any further, I would strongly suggest you get their approval, not just talk to somebody, because to go through all this stuff without their approval is a waste of everybody’s time,” Machnik warned.
Twining said her committee had been following the advice of BSC engineers who created a master plan of Halls Road, and that the committee had applied for a LOTCIP grant, which would be a channel for introducing the project to CT DOT.
Machnik said, “So as of right now, you do not have CT DOT approval.”
Twining said it was not possible to obtain approval because the project did not have engineering plans.
Planning member Barbara Gaudio asked what will happen if commercial and retail sectors continue to sink, and if the required retail spaces remained vacant in the new buildings on Halls Road.
Twining responded that most successful commercial businesses are in town centers where people can congregate.
“The idea of a walkable street allows you to have chance meetings with people. It has been proven that that setting is much more successful model than a strip center,” she said.
Ray Thompson, a member of the Halls Road Committee, responded that even if the retail environment suffers, a developer will have two floors of residential units still paying rent.
Kerr asked if Old Lyme had the population to support the project. “East Lyme and Saybrook have 18,000 per town, we only have 7,500.”
Twining answered that when the Economic Development Commission commissioned a survey, residents said they wanted more restaurants and cafes, something “more browsable.” She said Halls Road became the commercial district of the town 60 years ago and has been successful.
“But things are changing and it’s harder to keep retail businesses in place and it’s more likely that more and more will shut down,” she said.
Thompson, the Planning Chair, questioned the effectiveness of the proposed design review committee when the referral period for potential projects was only 35 days. Thompson asked how the committee would achieve the goal of architectural consistency when different developers propose projects.
Twining said that a project would be shown to the design review committee before a developer submits an application, and the review will be due 35 days from the application date.
“Having design guidelines gives developers some idea of how to make a successful project and they do that before they purchase the land or do the application. They come and work with the town and the design committee to make sure they design something that is going to pass,” she said.
As for consistency, there will be a set of images of what’s acceptable, she said.
“The committee wouldn’t have any real yay or nay, but can it make recommendations to the Zoning Commission,” she said. “Zoning told us they wished they had some way of knowing if a project is of good design.”
Twining ended with the warning that change was inevitable and it was important to shape the town’s future according to its own vision.
“We want you guys to work with us and help us get this done. You’re the Planning Commission and having a plan is what protects us from becoming a service center to the highway.”
The committee also submitted a letter of support for the overlay district from David Kelsey, a Halls Road Improvements Committee member who owns two properties included in the zone. The letter urged the Planning Commission to support the overlay application for the flexibility it would allow property owners and developers.
Approval of a resubmitted application by Planning should depend primarily on consistency with the town’s 2021 Plan of Conservation and Development, Ed Casella, the attorney for Planning, advised attendees at the meeting.
“When an application is filed with the Zoning Commission and a hearing is scheduled, then we will reconvene here with formal discussion of the plan. But this is a good opportunity for frank discussion and a good back and forth than a formal meeting.”
Kelsey, the primary funder of CT Examiner, was not contacted and had no role in the reporting or editing of this story