In Old Lyme, the ‘Meat of the Election is in Development’


TwitterFacebookCopy LinkPrintEmail

Editor’s note: the finalized plans can be seen here

Heading into the fall elections in Old Lyme, you have to wonder what exactly we’re voting about. Democrats and Republicans are, for the most part, pretty content on Board of Education to take their cues from Superintendent Ian Neviaser.

On the big question of whether to approve $57 million for school renovations, the board punted and sent the matter directly to the voters. I have to admit I’m still a little baffled by the choices which (after much delay) to my eyes were indistinguishable in both cost and detail.

The next big thing when it comes to schools at least is probably lighting the new turf field. I don’t recall a vote or decision to pay for lights, but I’m pretty sure it’s a done deal however you vote.

As for Board of Finance, Democrats and Republicans appear, mostly, content with Republicans. I doubt that will change.

The meat of the election is in development – Planning, Zoning and Board of Selectmen. All will soon be fielding significant proposals from the Halls Road Improvements Committee, whose members are appointed rather than elected.

The most active member on the Halls Road Committee, by far, is Edie Twining, a Democrat, but for the last two years she has had the support of Tim Griswold, the Republican first selectman.

If anyone is keeping a tab, the town has funded a handful of ambitious proposals by the Halls Road Committee – each presented as fait accompli – but so far nothing has come of any of them.

Griswold himself ran four years ago on a promise to install sidewalks and a bit of shrubbery – in part in reaction to a pie-in-the-sky plan for Halls Road by Yale Urban Design — but so far that hasn’t happened either.

I don’t think anyone takes seriously claims that 80% of the town supports anything other than sidewalks and shrubbery (and perhaps not that).

But on Saturday (and again on Thursday Oct. 5) the Halls Road Improvements Committee is hosting an open house to present their latest – a bow bridge, which for reasons of ADA compliance has no bow, as well as a park and trails wedged roughly between the Hangry Goose and Andy’s. The open house is clearly an opportunity to earn the public’s support.

We strongly encourage you to attend.

Preliminary plans, dating to August 10, show a remarkable density of amenities including a fishing pier, a sculpture park, a vividly painted sidewalk, fanciful signage, and a small amphitheater in the grassy strip between Old Lyme Shopping Centre and Route 1, roughly where Democrats held a rally this summer.

No doubt the most persistent critic of the plan has been Debra Czarnecki, a Republican, who sits on the committee. Last week – likely referring to all of these extras – she questioned the “Disney” flavor of the project.

But the plans, paid for by the town, also pitch the potential benefits of the trail, from reducing food insecurity and risk factors linked to cancer to raising the values of nearby properties from 4% to 20%.

Hyperbole aside, on a number of occasions since the summer, we’ve asked Twining, Griswold and the town’s lawyer to release committee plans and correspondence to get a better sense of the plans, and to release them to the public.

Unfortunately, instead of opting for transparency, Twining moved normal committee discussions into executive session – a first in our 4+ years of covering small town development across the state.

I’m guessing such secrecy is a matter of frustration, not malfeasance, after several stalled projects. But by pitching yet another fait accompli to the public on Saturday, I can’t help but wonder whether the committee wouldn’t have been better served by more, not less, public scrutiny before the plans are half-baked.

The almost inevitable consequence is a rash of late-to-the-game opposition.

Already we’ve heard from one a group of neighbors in the village of Old Lyme, part of a budding local dark-sky effort, who are questioning the need for additional lighting and the sum impact to the town’s environment and nighttime sky of all the separate ongoing efforts to light up the town — along Lyme Street for nighttime events, on Halls Road, and to illuminate the new turf field.

And the committee seems even to have surprised itself last week with plans for a fishing pier, despite the pier featuring in the committee’s maps and renderings since at least August 10.

The small outpouring of public opposition was predictable.

And even before the news got out, Twining attempted to stuff the idea back in the box, telling members of the Halls Road Improvements Committee that state officials likely wouldn’t hold the town to its end of a horse trade – a fishing pier and public access in return for the needed use of state-owned land.

In my experience, that’s doubtful.

Surprisingly, no one seems to have talked to former Harbor Commission Chair Steve Ross, who produced plans for a bridge and fishing pier in the same location at a small fraction of the cost — a project that was derailed five years ago when the funding got tangled up in the Port Authority shenanigans.

A painting of that bridge, I’m told, still hangs in Town Hall.

Of course, all of this comes after, and depends on, the upcoming local election. I’d encourage you to ask the candidates for Planning, Zoning and Board of Selectmen where they stand on the issue.

In the meantime, none of this exists in a vacuum and the Halls Road Improvements Commission also announced last week that they had paid a company to test the soil along Halls Road for suitability for septic — presumably a first step in encouraging the development of multifamily apartment complexes.

And for the first time it seemed the committee actually had managed a minor fait accompli, if only because they sought approval for the spending from the Board of Selectmen and Board of Finance after the fact.