OLD LYME — Plans to build 35-foot-tall storage units along Shore Road spurred the town’s Zoning Commission to consider new rules to regulate commercial development adjacent to Old Lyme’s beach communities.
The project – for three 10,500-square-foot buildings located across the street from the town’s residential beach area – was the catalyst for a long discussion Monday among Zoning Commission members about how to shape commercial development along that stretch of Shore Road through zoning regulations. The application will be on the commission’s meeting agenda for Oct. 10.
The developer’s first proposal was withdrawn in 2021 after more than 100 residents signed a petition in opposition. The commission denied a second application this May, in part citing a lack of precedent for the 35-foot-tall buildings in the neighborhood. The applicants, Kid’s Realty, LLC and Pond Road, LLC, are currently appealing the denial in court.
Chair Paul Orzel opened the Monday meeting by suggesting a six-month moratorium on storage units, with the goal of a new regulation in place at the end of the period.
Eric Knapp, the town’s zoning enforcement officer, said the regulation would stop new applications during the moratorium but would not affect applications already filed.
“I would like to see something put in place,” Orzel said. “So we’re not in the situation we’re in now.”
But commission alternate Michael Barnes warned that eliminating storage units as an acceptable use would not prevent other types of structures of similar mass, height and bulk.
Barnes also said removing a use was a detriment to the rights and opportunities of commercial property owners, and that storage units were strong “tax revenue generators” for the town.
Commission Secretary Jane Marsh highlighted the awkward juxtaposition of residential and commercial zones along that stretch of Route 156.
“There are commercial lots all along facing all of those residential areas. And fully developing all of those commercial lots, no matter how it’s done, is fairly upsetting, because I think it’s the traffic, and it’s just the intersection between residences and commercial,” she said.
Marsh suggested changing bulk standards for commercial buildings, adding buffer areas and screening, and implementing traffic control methods.
Storage units are not uncommon on Shore Road. The commission approved a 2020 application for four single-story storage units at 224 Shore Road. A 1986 storage facility at 232 Shore Road, also includes seven single-story buildings ranging from 3,800 to 8,700 square feet.
But commission member Mike Miller said the latest storage unit proposal brought broader issues to the attention of the commission, since the other two facilities were smaller, less visible and set back from the road.
“Now, what we have facing the road are three big buildings with security fences, lights, the aesthetic going down there are kind of like Stalag 13,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is look at our zoning regs on storage units and say that if we’re going to have storage units in our town, this is how we want them built.”
Miller said it’s important to consider how big Old Lyme wanted its buildings to be, especially in light of the large, bulky buildings approved for downtown Niantic.
Commission member Mary Jo Nosal suggested not allowing new storage units within a given distance of existing storage.
But Knapp told the commission that zoning regulations allow for minimum distances between liquor stores and marijuana shops, but not most other types of businesses.
“Ultimately, if someone wants to come in and outcompete – an additional user – that’s considered to be their right under the zoning laws,” he said.
Knapp asked the commission to consider what uses they’d like to see along Shore Road in contrast with Halls Road, the town’s main commercial strip.
“Traditionally, Old Lyme has only had Halls Road as your one commercial strip for the town. It may be that for a limited combination of commercial uses, that some portions of Shore Road might be suitable for other uses,” he said.
Knapp warned the commission that removing a use from the regulations makes the existing properties more valuable because they have become nonconforming.
“You’re increasing the value of uses you don’t like,” he said.
He said the regulations also needed to be uniform across Halls Road and Shore Road given that the areas are both zoned C-30. Knapp suggested a possible Shore Road district with its own commercial zoning regulations as one solution.
And Marsh questioned the value of a moratorium. She urged commission members to envision that stretch of Shore Road commercially developed and to bring their ideas to the October meeting.
“Apparently there’s a lot of opinions on this commission … and the homework is for every commission member is to write down their ideas for what improvements could be made to the language,” she said.