East Lyme Weighs Development That Could Reshape Town

East Lyme — It's a scary thought for a lot of people in town: amending zoning regulations to allow development of a gigantic store surrounded by five other big stores, restaurants and a road leading to the biggest neighborhood in East Lyme.

That's what's currently in front of the Zoning Commission.

Two developers, Konover Properties Corp. of West Hartford and KGI Properties LLC of Massachusetts and Rhode Island, have 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 second public hearing on the plan is set for 7:30 tonight at the senior center. The applicant is ex

pected to wrap up its presentation, and the public will have a chance to comment. No decision is expected tonight.

The regulation change would allow a Home Depot-size anchor store of up to 140,000 square feet — seven times the square footage now permitted.

The application also seeks approval for five “junior anchor stores” ranging from 25,000 to 90,000 square feet, no more than two of which could exceed 50,000 square feet. The development plan also calls for hundreds of residential units.

A boulevard would snake throughout the village and the existing I-95 ramps would be realigned. The entire area would be referred to as Gateway Commons.

Niantic attorney Ted Harris submitted a sketchbook at the last meeting to give the commission an idea of what the project could look like. William Mulholland, the town's zoning official, called the sketches a “visual aid.”

According to the sketchbook, early plans for the 140,000-square-foot building would have it look like a collection of small stores resembling those in Mystic or outlet malls in Westbrook and Clinton.

If the regulation change is approved, the commission would have control over the design of the development, Mulholland said, and could prevent the developer from changing course and returning with a plan for a big-box store with an entirely different look.

The applicant's approach is atypical. Instead of providing the smallest details of an overall plan, the developers are first offering a glimpse of their ultimate goal and working backwards.

The idea is called “form-based zoning,” an approach Mulholland called “cutting-edge.”

“You look at the development first and then layer the other issues, such as lighting and design and drainage and traffic, underneath that,” he said. “It's, 'This is what we could get, what it could look like — now how do we do that appropriately?' ”

The regulation change, or text amendment, is the first step.

Mulholland outlined a three-step process that would require approval of the text amendment; approval of a master plan, which would require a special permit and the applicant to provide details, including a traffic study and specifics on architecture; and approval of a site plan for “anything and everything.”

Mulholland said the town has used the approach in considering the Chapman Farms, Spinnaker, Chapman Woods and Darrow Pond developments.

The conceptual plan for the Gateway Commons project shows a revamped exit/entrance off I-95 that travels west of the existing ramp. An existing pool store would remain, and the ramp would be on the other side of it.

The ramp would route traffic into the commercial part of the development, with a fork that would allow drivers to travel toward Gateway Commons or toward Route 161.

The residential area would be separate from the commercial section, with a road connecting the two.

Some neighbors of the proposed project have expressed concerns about it. According to minutes of the first public hearing two weeks ago, they asked about buffers, traffic and the potential impact on the aquifer in the area and the town's tax base, among other issues.

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