OLD LYME — Weeks ahead of municipal elections, CT Examiner sat down with Republican and Democratic selectmen candidates to discuss redevelopment on Halls Road, sewer infrastructure in the beach communities, the workplace conditions in Town Hall and whether selectmen have any say in the books permitted in the school library.
This story covers a conversation with Republican candidates, while a separate story will be dedicated to Democratic candidates.
Republicans have endorsed John Mesham for first selectman. Mesham, who served in the U.S. Marine Corps and then as a police officer for 29 years, including two decades as a Connecticut State Trooper, would replace current Republican First Selectman Tim Griswold. Mesham currently is a member of the town’s Inland Wetlands Commission.
Mesham’s running mate, Jude Read, has managed several small businesses, has been a member of the town’s Board of Finance for 20 years, and served a term on the Board of Education.
Halls Road and Workplace Improvements
The town has been engaged in a long debate over whether to modify zoning regulations on Halls Road to allow mixed-use buildings, including multifamily housing.
Mesham said the town should take a more “traditional” approach to the planning around Halls Road and scale back the Bow Bridge proposal, saying that the price is too high and it was being done at the expense of sidewalks and other “basic improvements.”
“It’s not tying new sidewalks in, it’s not tying new landscaping in, it’s not tying new lighting in. So to me, it’s kind of a bridge to nowhere right now. I think we need to roll back and reel it in a little bit, and get some of those basic improvements that would make a bridge appealing,” he said.
“I feel as if it should be a slow progression. I feel like right now we’re being faced with all or nothing,” Read added. “So we aren’t going to do sidewalks. We’re not going to beautify, for lack of a better word – change the signage, put in crosswalks where needed. Instead, we’re going to wait another 10, 12, 20 years for that while we get the larger picture, whatever that may be. … Why not put the sidewalks in? Why not make it user-friendly and then work out the longer range details? But I feel like we’re losing focus. … Right now the money seems to be all directed to a bridge. I’m not even sure the general public wants this bridge.”
Mesham said the overlay could be a good idea “in theory,” but that the rule about 15-foot setbacks seemed “arbitrary” and that there needed to be uniform standards.
“It’s not going to be walkable because you could have all different sorts of setbacks, with one developer using the overlay and one not using the overlay. That doesn’t make sense to me at all. I’m not looking for the town of Old Lyme to become a Mystic or a Madison. I think most people move to this town because they like Old Lyme,” Mesham said.
Regarding reports of a toxic work environment in Town Hall, Read said the town needs to create a full-time human resources department.
“We need a way to organize and service employee files. We need a process about warnings, notifications, so that we have better staffing [and] management. So the employees feel heard and the management of the town is going through the proper channels,” Read said.
Mesham said the town should have regular department head meetings, and that he’d like to look into changing the working hours — perhaps having employees stay late on Thursdays so they could then leave early on Friday. Read said she wanted to see a “friendlier atmosphere” in Town Hall, and that the first selectman needs to be visible to the employees.
Read added that she wants to see better reporting from the town’s smaller committees, so that the public could be aware of decisions being made there.
Sewers and Affordable Housing
In 2012, the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection ordered Old Lyme to implement a wastewater management system in three of the town’s chartered beach associations and the town’s Sound View Beach community.
But in February, one of the beach associations said they were no longer willing to be part of a cost-sharing agreement for building sewers that would send waste to New London, citing high costs and insufficient grant funding. They also called for a revoking of DEEP’s consent decree.
Mesham said although he was open to “sewer avoidance,” he felt the decree was tying the town’s hands.
“That’s the big elephant in the room. You can try to say you want to do alternate stuff. Until that decree is lifted, that’s not going to happen. And one of the beach communities just asked recently — within the last year — if we could alter or remove the consent decree, and it was a flat no. And that’s what I would expect in the future,” he said.
Mesham noted that part of the problem was determining how to pay for it. He said the beach communities had been ready to finance the installation on their own, and that it would be their responsibility since they were “their own borough.” He said the town could look into cost-sharing in the Sound View area for tearing up the road and running the sewer main.
“I think, as a town, we have to come up with a solution on that financing, whether it’s purely Sound View or the rest of the community,” Mesham said.
Read said it wasn’t the town’s job to “police” the current blight on Route 156, but that changes to the zoning code to encourage development or moving forward with the sewer project would help the situation.
“I think if you give them the opportunity … to use their property in a way that’s good for the rest of the community, as well as to their benefit, I think blight will sort of take care of itself,” she said.
Read said she was in favor of the affordable housing project proposed for Hatchett’s Hill. While she acknowledges there’s debate over how many housing units should be included, she believes the site is a good one.
“My feeling [is]… why don’t you put it in an area where there’s safe access, also convenience to [Interstate] 95 and a commercial or business area, as well as a good transportation hub. I think that the development on Hatchett’s could be a site for something like that,” Read said. “I think you can see a benefit to the commercial end of [Route] 156 in that area, as well as, it would be a solution … to this affordable/workforce housing that we need to address.”
Mesham, who was a scoutmaster for the Boy Scouts for 10 years, said he was passionate about working with young people. He views affordable housing as a way to get more young people to return to Old Lyme and start families.
“I think that’s something we need to really take a hard look at, because everyone says we need workforce housing. We need housing that’s affordable for younger people to stay here,” he said. “I would hope people are going to be open to new things. We can’t just say no to everything because we don’t want change.”
Read said she wants to see mentoring within the town offices and job shadowing, or internship opportunities at local businesses. She said she was pleased that people have shown interest in the Parks and Recreation Department’s expanded offerings. She said she wants to get more people interested in volunteering with the local ambulance crew and fire department as well.
Both Mesham and Read said it’s not the role of the first selectman or the Board of Selectmen to get involved with the selection of books that should be available in the public library.
In June, parents and community members signed a petition asking for the removal of a book from the teen section of the Phoebe Noyes Griffin Library because of its inclusion of explicit commentary and cartoon graphics about sex, including oral and anal sex. The library Board of Trustees ultimately decided to keep that book and an additional book that raised concerns.
“We have a paid staff, and there is a volunteer board that has been chosen by the public, or the library [in] combination. And we trust them to run the library. Period,” Read said.
But they also said the library Board of Trustees meetings should be open to the public, since a large part of the library budget is financed by the town.
If elected, Mesham said that, after two years in office, he wants to have made progress on the sewers and “some common sense, basic improvements” to Halls Road.
Read said she wants to keep the town’s taxes low and ensure the Senior Center project and the Lyme-Old Lyme Schools renovation project are kept under budget.