OLD LYME – Plans to encourage redevelopment of the town’s retail district on Halls Road were met with skepticism by members of the Zoning Commission during a public discussion on Tuesday night scheduled to determine whether the commission would be agreeable to waiving a 12-month “cooling off period” after a previous attempt to pass the zoning changes was voted down in March.
Edie Twining, who chairs the Halls Road Improvements Committee, and attorney Bill Sweeney answered questions for about an hour after floating the idea of resubmitting a lightly revised proposal as soon as July.
According to Sweeney, the meeting last Thursday with the town’s Planning Commission was a “very productive and fruitful discussion,” and they were optimistic that this time they would have the support of the commission, after a unanimous negative referral in November stymied the prior application to Zoning – optimism that was not shared by one member of Planning who spoke to CT Examiner shortly after the meeting.
Noting that the town’s Affordable Housing Commission had written out of concern that the Halls Road plan lacked any provision for affordable housing, Paul Orzel, the chair of Zoning, urged Twining and Sweeney this time to consider requiring that at least a small portion of any apartments would be affordable – a point later reiterated by Zoning board members Michael Barnes, Tammy Tinnerello and Mary Jo Nosal.
But it was Barnes, an alternate member on Zoning, who largely set the tone of the discussion, repeatedly questioning the wisdom of approving a “walkable” plan, and minimal setbacks, on the assumption that the Connecticut Department of Transportation would later approve sidewalks within the right of way along Halls Road.
Twining replied to Barnes that the sidewalk and zoning projects were “two very separate pieces” and the application for sidewalks did not include any zoning issues.
And Sweeney assured the commission that “time and time again throughout this state you see DOT working with municipalities to create walkable areas, to create sidewalks.” He also suggested to members of the commission that their support would be helpful in securing the state’s acquiescence to sidewalks in the right of way.
But what would happen to the plan, Zoning board member Jane Marsh asked, if the DOT didn’t in the end support sidewalks in the right of way?
“Nothing,” replied Sweeney, “You could still do sidewalks along the frontage,” but the space for outdoor dining and patios would be limited to perhaps 10 feet.
Board member Michael Miller, questioned how the Halls Road Improvements Committee had settled on 15-foot setbacks along Halls Road, given the desire to fit into the space sidewalks and outdoor cafés, suggesting the figure seemed like it had been “pulled out of thin air.”
Twining replied that 15 feet was the distance between the façade of the Old Lyme Ice Cream Shoppe at 34 Lyme St. and the curb — reproducing the feel of the nearby historic district — prompting Miller to question whether setbacks suitable for a quiet residential street also were suitable for the tractor trailers and summer traffic rerouted off I-95 along Halls Road.
“I’m concerned about some of the complexities, some of the details getting missed,” said Barnes.
A new application, Miller suggested, seemed premature given the need to coordinate with Planning, Affordable Housing, and the Historic District Commission.
Nosal, who served as selectman for Old Lyme before joining Zoning, said that in her experience, the DOT had been a good partner for the town.
Sloan Danenhower, an alternate on Zoning, said that the elephant in the room remained the availability of septic and water along Halls Road.
But Twining replied that developers have overcome similar obstacles, for example the 186-unit Saybrook Station Apartments built adjacent to the Shore Line East station in Old Saybrook which uses a community septic system.
Miller questioned whether the soil conditions were at all comparable.
Residential development, Twining told the commission members, would be more profitable for developers, would better compete with highway-oriented commercial development. She urged the Zoning Commission not to put off approving her plan.
“The longer you wait, the sooner you’re going to get … things that the town doesn’t want – highway-centric commercial-only projects,” Twining warned members of Zoning.
But Barnes questioned whether it would be better simply to allow residential development in the commercial district without all the additional complexities of the larger plan.
During the meeting, which stretched nearly four hours, in separate business Zoning also agreed not to appeal a court ruling allowing a convenience store as part of the existing gas station on Halls Road, in exchange for an agreement by the developers to limit store hours to 5 a.m. to 11 p.m.
The commission also voted to approve off-site parking for Kokomo’s Restaurant at 58 Hartford Ave., the site of a dilapidated 1930s-era dance hall which was demolished by the property owner, Frank Noe, in 2019.