Old Lyme zone woe

It is a shame that the town should have to declare Barbara Crowley a zoning lawbreaker for showing some entrepreneurial spirit in expanding the offerings at her Connecticut Shell candy shop in Old Lyme. But as the saying goes, "Them's are the rules."

The shop at 18 Lyme St. dates back over 35 years. Ms. Crowley has operated it since 2011. Trying to diversify, the shopkeeper began selling coffee and pastries, set up a few seats and tables and hung out a "Café Open" flag.

The problem for Ms. Crowley is that Lyme Street was zoned residential in the late 1970s, meaning the commercial businesses there are "non-conforming uses;" they can continue to operate, but not expand or substantially change. The zoning officer slapped the shop with a cease and desist order.

Last Tuesday the Zoning Board of Appeals unanimously voted to uphold the order. ZBA members appeared uncomfortable with having to reach the conclusion, but the violation was clear-cut.

Zoning rules do much good in managing development. But sometimes they do not leave room for common sense. The addition of a bit of café to the candy offerings was doing no harm to the charming little street, but the ZBA can only assess whether a violation occurred or not. It did.

Ms. Crowley could seek a variance, but it appears she would not have a case for that either.

The zoning decision has set off a discussion about the town's zoning laws for Lyme Street. The solution might be some sort of overlay zone, which would provide flexibility for existing businesses to change and innovate. Protections could include a permitting and public hearing process, requiring merchants to demonstrate that their proposed changes will not detract from the quality of residential life.

The goal of keeping the current character of the Lyme Street section should not be incompatible with a tweaking of zoning rules that allow for a bit of that entrepreneurial spirit.

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