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Old Lyme - Lyme Street, a tree-lined thoroughfare shared by historic homes, independent shops and art galleries, looks much as it did decades ago. But a recent zoning action against a Lyme Street sweet shop has sparked a conversation about the future of the town's picturesque main street - and its regulations.
At the heart of the discussion is The Chocolate Shell, at 18 Lyme St., one of several businesses along the historic district that is also home to the Town Hall, a fine arts college, public schools and a fire station. The businesses are grandfathered in, which means they can continue to operate based on their historical use even though the area is now zoned residential.
The Chocolate Shell was established in 1980 and sells an array of chocolates and sweets, from truffles to madeleine cookies, within its pink and yellow store walls. Old Lyme resident Barbara Crowley, who took over the shop in 2011 and lives in town, said having a shop on Lyme Street is wonderful: people stroll up and down the street, and children from the schools just down the street pop by for treats after school.
Last summer, Crowley decided to expand the shop's offerings by adding a coffee maker, a display case for chocolates and baked goods and a counter with stools in the store's renovated back section. She also added extra tables and chairs in the back patio and in the front of the store. Crowley, who had always offered hot cocoa, said she viewed the changes as an extension of her product line. Previous businesses there had used the back patio for outdoor seating, she said.
But the town saw things differently. In January, Crowley received a cease and desist letter stating that she was running a full-service and take-out restaurant without the necessary permits, which constituted a change in use and a violation of the zoning regulations. The "Cafe Open" flag outside her shop also lacked a permit, the order said.
Crowley has appealed the order and is due before the Zoning Board of Appeals on March 18. Zoning Enforcement Officer Ann Brown said she could not comment on the order because it's under appeal.
In the meantime, the shop is open and selling chocolates and coffee. Businesses should be allowed to update their offerings in order to sustain themselves and maintain a presence on the main street, Crowley said.
News of the cease and desist order attracted an outpouring of support for the shop. A petition to overturn the order and allow the shop to expand its offerings drew 95 signatures. Dozens of supporters posted on the shop's Facebook page and emailed the shop with letters of support. They also sent letters to the Zoning Commission and showed up in droves to a zoning meeting last month.
Some residents said the additions to The Chocolate Shell enhanced Lyme Street, making the shop a meeting spot for residents, and did not amount to it becoming a restaurant. Some also said they viewed the order as discouraging to local businesses. Resident David Hickie said he welcomed the growth of an independent business in a time when many face stiff competition from big box stores and chain coffee shops.
Amy Melton, who moved to town 2½ years ago, said The Chocolate Shell was one of the first places she made a connection to in Old Lyme. Visiting the shop is a nice break; in warm weather, her daughters can pick out treats and sit outside to enjoy them, she said.
"It's just a spot to sit down and pause and enjoy some company," she said.
But other residents, in letters to the town - which date as far back as last summer when Crowley first decided to expand the shop's offerings - said the shop's changes violated the zoning and historic district regulations established to preserve the street's charm.
"As a long time resident of the Lyme Street area, I ask that you uphold the current zoning laws, which will serve to preserve and protect the charm and tranquility of our lovely, historic Lyme Street area," wrote resident Jane Schellens in a Feb. 10 email to the Zoning Commission.
When reached by phone, some of the eight residents who wrote the letters declined to speak on the matter, which they said was a legal and zoning issue.
A balance on Lyme Street
In the town's early days, the Lieutenant River was a hub of activity, with ships stopping at docks with materials from the West Indies, according to Town Historian and Historic District Commission Chairman John Pfeiffer. Trade and agriculture - many residents maintained farmland despite having day jobs - were mainstays in the town.
Merchants, who lived in town but also had commercial interests in it, contributed to the fabric of the town's main street. The street also offered shops and lodging for visitors and sailors.
"There is a fiber of commercial activity, as well as domestic activity, in the center of town," Pfeiffer said.
Eventually, the shipping industry moved farther west and farming waned. But multi-faceted uses continued on Lyme Street. By the mid-20th century, residences stood among grocery stores, a car dealership, a hardware store and other buildings on Lyme Street, he said. As the town's population - and the average store size - grew, town leaders established a new commercial district on Halls Road, away from Lyme Street. Several commercial properties continued to do business on Lyme Street, even as the street was zoned residential in 1959 and later became a historic district in 1971.
Crowley said she wants the town to update its regulations for businesses on Lyme Street. Businesses are tax-paying property owners who contribute to the town, she said, but restrictions stymie their growth, she said.
Angeline Reale, owner of the Old Lyme Ice Cream Shoppe and Cafe at 34 Lyme St., said she would join Crowley if she formed a group to represent Lyme Street businesses. Reale said she'd like the street to be a mixed-use district so business owners can make small tweaks to their businesses in line with the street's charm.
"We're all looking to enhance our businesses to make it more appealing for people to want to come to Lyme Street," she said.
Meagan Crowley, 25, Barbara Crowley's daughter, encouraged the town to welcome new ideas for businesses so it maintains its character but doesn't stay in a rut.
"Lyme Street has so much potential to be greater than what it is," she said.