OLD LYME — With municipal elections ahead, CT Examiner interviewed the Democratic and Republican candidates for selectmen, focusing on the sewer project in the beach communities, potential redevelopment of Halls Road, the work environment in Town Hall, affordable housing, and youth issues pertaining to library books.
This story covers a discussion with the Democratic candidates for selectmen. A separate story is dedicated to the Republican candidates.
Town Democrats have endorsed Martha Shoemaker for first selectman. Shoemaker was elected as a selectman in 2021 and has been a member of the Board of Education for two terms. She worked as a teacher in the Waterford Public Schools for 33 years, as well as being union president for more than 12 years, and later worked as a purchasing agent for a small business in Old Lyme, FiberQ.
Shoemaker’s running mate for the Board of Selectmen, Jim Lampos, owns and operates Pizza Palace in Groton. Before that, he worked on urban planning projects in New York City and was the director of development for a nonprofit there. He has served on the Planning Commission, the Community Connectivity Grant Committee and the Sound View Improvements Committee.
The two candidates were defeated in 2021 by Republicans Tim Griswold and Matt Ward.
Shoemaker said one of her top priorities is public safety, including addressing excessive speeding. She also said she wants to mitigate the flooding near the Cross Lane trestle, which can interfere with emergency services.
Lampos added that the town needed to increase its open space as a protection against climate change.
“We’re seeing these rainstorms that we haven’t seen before — 4 inches of rain at a time. It’s unusual. Rising sea levels. The best way to address that is to double down on our open space, particularly in the marshlands,” he explained. “As sea levels rise, these lands can absorb those big storms. It can absorb tidal surges.”
He said the Nature Conservancy had identified several parcels of land that could be put aside as open space.
“As pressures of development come along and these open spaces get developed, particularly on the coastline if they’re not protected, we’re going to lose that defense. So if we can do some marsh restoration, some protection of areas where marshes may advance, I think that would be our best defense against climate change,” he said.
In 2012, the town was ordered by the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection to construct a wastewater management system in three of the town’s chartered beach associations — Miami Beach, Old Lyme Shores, and Old Colony Beach — as well as the town’s Sound View Beach community.
However, in February, Old Lyme Shores Beach Association said the project was economically unfeasible and that they were no longer willing to be part of the cost-sharing agreement that would send effluent to New London. The association also called for the state’s consent order to be modified or revoked.
Lampos said the community had reached an “impasse” on the question of whether to install sewers in Sound View and the neighboring beach communities, and that the town should consider “alternative technologies.”
Lampos said connecting the sewers to New London would be a “terrible mistake.”
“New London by 2040 is going to need additional capacity. All those costs are going to be passed down to the town of Old Lyme,” he said. “The bill is going to be handed to the town of Old Lyme, and the town of Old Lyme turns around and hands 100 percent of that – of their bill – to the three streets in Sound View. So those property owners pay 100 percent of the town’s share.”
He also noted that the water tests done at the beaches were “at least 12 years old” and that the beaches were tested weekly by the Ledge Light Health District and determined to be clean.
Shoemaker noted that, while the town had received a $15 million forgivable loan from DEEP to install the sewer system, it wasn’t clear yet whether that would be enough to cover the cost. If it wasn’t, she said, at least two of the beach communities would have to go back to referendum.
“Then they’re going to have to decide amongst those small associations — are they going forward and do they feel this is affordable?” she said, adding that they would know more in the spring.
Whether to add mixed-use residential zoning to Halls Road — Old Lyme’s commercial center — has been the subject of long debate in the town.
In March, the Zoning Commission narrowly rejected a proposal for an overlay district on Halls Road that would have allowed mixed use housing. The Halls Improvements Committee is currently preparing a modified proposal for submittal that will include affordable housing.
Shoemaker said the proposed overlay district was intended to narrow some of the existing regulations. She explained that the current zoning laws on Halls Road are very broad, meaning a developer could do “pretty much what they wanted to do.”
She also noted that the Zoning Commission would have to approve any new projects.
“Nothing is written down. There’s no buildings that have been proposed. Zoning gets the final say of what goes in there. But I think it’s a plan for the future, and I’m a proactive planner,” she said. “Otherwise, we could see two more gas stations down there. Of course, that would have to go through zoning too, but we need to put some parameters.”
Regarding Bow Bridge, she said, the project is currently in its conceptual phase and had not yet gone out to bid. She pointed out that the plan was to fund the bridge with grants.
“Do I think it would be nice to have? Certainly. I think it would beautify the area. I think people would enjoy it. I think it would connect with a lot of tourist attractions together. And I think it’s … another public safety issue,” she said, adding it would give students a safer place to walk after school.
Lampos compared Bow Bridge to a sidewalk project, and said the sidewalk project that Sound View funded with grants was “100 percent successful” and neighbors made use of them.
“If you use federal and state money to do that, that’s a big win. And you can connect the museums with the post office and the commercial district, and then down Lyme Street to the Town Hall and the library. This creates a unified civic environment,” he said.
Lampos explained he wasn’t looking for “big changes” in town, but rather small modifications that could eventually lead to an overall improvement of the area.
“What we did in Sound View could be applicable to Town Woods. There’s no sidewalk going up Town Woods Road to the Town Woods Recreation Area, to the Senior Center. Connect that with Hains Park. That won’t be a big infrastructure project, but then you can walk from the Senior Center to Hains Park along Town Woods Road,” said Lampos. “Simple little things like that — we should have that in the pipeline constantly.”
Shoemaker said she’d like an expert in state law to look at the town’s zoning laws and provide recommendations to the Zoning Commission for ways to modify the codes.
“Our volunteers don’t have time to do this. It’s pages upon pages,” Shoemaker said. “And I think that that would be a really good use of financial funds so that they could help us get on track.”
Workplace environment and affordable housing
Shoemaker said another top priority for her was having town meetings video recorded and live streamed, rather than using free conference calling. She noted that the town already had money from the federal coronavirus relief funds that could be used to make the changes.
“There is no reason in this town and this day and age that we do not have meetings broadcast,” she said. “I think that’s a top priority. It has to be done. People pay taxes in this town. There are seniors in this town who do not want to come out on a winter night or on a rainy night and come to a meeting, but they want to hear what’s going on. They have a voice and they should be able to be heard.”
In response to reports of a toxic work environment in Town Hall, Shoemaker said she and other members of the current Board of Selectmen had “made great strides” in addressing the findings in the report. She said the town currently has a part-time human resources consultant, and that the new Board of Selectmen will have to determine whether they want to retain her or hire a full-time position.
Shoemaker said there needed to be a process in writing, so that knowledge about addressing workplace concerns does not disappear when the human resources position changes hands.
“An employee of the town needs to be able to go to someone that they can trust, and it can’t be the first selectman because it could be that there’s going to be some type of an investigation, and the Board of Selectmen has to stay neutral until they have the findings of the investigation. So you have to be the leader, but also you have to sort of take that step back. And that’s why the HR person is so important,” she said.
Regarding affordable housing, Lampos noted there were abandoned buildings on Route 156 that could be turned into affordable housing, which could help combat the blight problem in that area.
“We see some abandoned buildings, abandoned properties, we see some housing that’s maybe underutilized. We can take our existing stock and, with tax incentives, encourage some of those to be like a small summer cottage, transformed into affordable housing for a senior or a starting family through the incentive of a tax break on property tax,” he said.
But he and Shoemaker warned against putting too many units in the Hatchetts Hill project, saying this would make it more difficult for the town to meet the state’s affordable housing goal.
“You get an 189-unit project, you gain some affordable housing, but you’re getting two market rate units per affordable housing unit. That means that you’re falling further and further behind,” Lampos said.
Shoemaker said the Affordable Housing Commission was examining where affordable housing could be created in small clusters. She also suggested asking the state Legislature about a regional affordable housing solution.
Both Lampos and Shoemaker said the Board of Selectmen does not have a role in deciding which books should be available for young readers in the library.
A group of parents and community members signed a petition in June requesting that a specific book — containing explicit language and cartoon graphics about sex, including oral and anal sex — be removed from the teen section of the Phoebe Noyes Griffin Library. After review, the Board of Trustees of the library affirmed that the book, and another book, met the library’s collection development policy for inclusion in the Teen/Tween collection.
“The library has their own board of directors. They handle all of that. That’s not our purview. Stay in our lane,” Shoemaker said.
Lampos said the town needs to provide more recreational opportunities to young people.
“Most kids leave when they can, and not because they don’t like Old Lyme. It’s just we don’t have the opportunities here,” he said, adding that he’d like to see more young people involved in town government.
Shoemaker said she’d like to bring elementary school students on a field trip to Town Hall, and educate them about local government.
“They do learn about government in school. But what is their local government? And how does it work? Some of them walk in with their mom to get the beach sticker or to pay the taxes. But what does that really mean? And how does that help them?” she said.
They also said establishing a small business district with coffee shops and bookstores would create more opportunities for socialization.
If elected, Shoemaker said she hoped that, after two years in office, there would be progress made on Halls Road and the sewers. She also wants to hire a grant writer. Meanwhile, Lampos said his goals were oriented toward managing the town’s day-to-day needs and helping people.
“In the end, I would hope after two years, people aren’t going to say, ‘Oh, he did this.’ It’s more like, ‘Well, he helped move this boulder out of the road,’” he said. “To help people is really what you’re there for.”