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East Lyme — With its members spooked by the vastness of the proposed retail buildings and the intensity of housing, the town's Zoning Commission Thursday night — in a vote that wasn't expected for weeks — denied a proposal for a text amendment that would have allowed one of the biggest developments in the region, referred to as Gateway Commons.
The vote was 5-0 with commission Chairman Mark Nickerson abstaining. Nickerson said afterward that he abstained because he felt the commission could have modified the application rather than reject it outright.
The commission had planned to spend most of Thursday night listening to a developer's proposal to build condominiums in the Oswegatchie Hills. But that public hearing was postponed after a procedural error, and the only item left on the agenda was the Gateway application.
Two developers, Konover Properties Corp. of West Hartford and KGI Properties LLC of Massachusetts and Rhode Island, had teamed to apply for a regulation change on 200 acres adjacent to Interstate 95 at Exit 74. The area includes property where The Shack restaurant and a driving range are located.
The amendment would have allowed an anchor store that was seven times the square footage now permitted, plus up to five junior anchor stores that were each substantially larger than currently permitted, and a retail village. It also called for hundreds of residential units.
Nickerson suggested that commission members spend about 20 minutes to take a “poll” and gauge their reactions to the Gateway application, figuring they would suggest modifications or alterations to the proposal, and then work those into a motion in a future meeting.
It quickly became apparent that most of the commission strongly opposed the application, and they opted to vote after almost an hour of discussion. No one from the applicant's team was in attendance and just a handful of people were at the meeting.
Most of the commission agreed with a conclusion reached by member Marc Salerno: the application would negate the town's vision for the area.
Members also agreed, however, that the town's current regulations for the area are too restrictive and are the reason this application was the first in the approximately eight years since the town laid out a vision for the land.
Existing zoning regulations refer to the area as a “Gateway Planned Development District.” The district limits commercial buildings to 20,000 square feet and, Salerno said, encourages high-tech businesses with highly skilled workers.
“This is going to change the character of the town,” Salerno said.
Said member Rosanna Carabelas: “Going from 20,000 (square feet) to what they were asking for is just ridiculous,”
Member Pamela Byrnes asked whether the town had marketed the area. Byrnes said she liked the idea of a master design, where the developer suggests an overall plan and works with the town on the details, but not much else about the application.
Byrnes said, she, too, envisioned different types of businesses and better-paying jobs. But, Byrnes added, she was dismayed by comments made during a public hearing for the application, when several residents spoke disparagingly about the types of people that might come to work and live in East Lyme.
“I was really dismayed by a couple of people in our town (who said) they don't want 'those people' here, related to housing,” she said. “I don't live in a town where people feel that way. It was very disheartening that my fellow residents spoke that way.”
Member Norm Peck said he liked the concept but needs more information. Peck suggested the town hire an independent agency to do an impact study on a plan for the Gateway district. Peck said the Konover-KGI application makes the Oswegatchie Hills proposal, Darrow Pond development and plans for downtown Niantic “look small.”
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