Residents pack Old Lyme hearing on affordable housing proposal

Old Lyme — Hundreds of people filled the Lyme-Old Lyme Middle School auditorium Tuesday evening for a public hearing on an affordable housing proposal to build 37 units by Interstate 95 north's Exit 70 off-ramp and Neck Road (Route 156).

HOPE Partnership and Women's Institute for Housing and Economic Development are applying to build River Oak Commons on two adjacent land parcels owned by Graybill Properties LLC., with seven townhome-style buildings at 18-1 Neck Road and another four buildings and a community building on 18-2 Neck Road. The development will have 80 parking spaces, a 24-foot-wide roadway and a network of sidewalks within the site, according to the applicant's presentation.

After three hours, the Zoning Commission said late Tuesday it will continue the hearings to 7:30 p.m. Monday, June 11. The location will be posted on the town's website.

By the fire marshal's count, 503 people showed up on Tuesday, with 460 in the auditorium and another 43 in the hallway.

HOPE Partnership and its representative outlined the first affordable housing application in a roughly hourlong presentation. Attorney David Royston, the representative, said the application is governed by the state's affordable housing statutes 8-30g, which require the Zoning Commission to consider the application under health and safety standards. He said a separate Coastal Area Management application is not required but case law has established that the commission needs to consider the goals and policies of the Coastal Area Management Act in making its decision. 

Lauren Ashe, HOPE Partnership's executive director, said the units would be designated affordable for people making between 25 percent and 80 percent of the area median income of $84,800, or households making between $21,200 and $67,840. She said these people work but do not make enough to save for a down payment on a home and make too much to qualify for any state or federal assistance. They include office personnel, retail workers, food service workers, cashiers, hairstylists, landscapers, dental assistants, EMT paramedics, paraprofessionals and recent college graduates.

Steve Ulman of Alfred Benesch and Company, the applicant's traffic engineer, gave an overview of the 2017 traffic study with an updated supplement with Memorial Day counts and new crash data. He said the average daily traffic is anticipated to be 239 one-way trips, with about 19 trips during the morning peak hour and about 24 during the evening peak hour.

With the yield sign for cars turning right from the highway off-ramp, he said people have expressed concerns that people coming from the off-ramp might drive too fast and create a problem for people exiting the housing site.

He said he does not think the development will create any issues but sent a request with the site plans and traffic study to the state Department of Transportation. He said he expects written comments this week but the department expressed in informal comments that it would not be willing to change the yield sign to a stop sign.

But several members of the Zoning Commission and residents pushed back with concerns over the development's impact on traffic safety, particularly if DOT is unwilling to change the yield sign.

"It's not so much what is happening inside the site but what's happening to the people waiting to leave the site and what's happening to the people coming down the ramp, and I just believe there's going to be an impact," Zoning Commission member Jane Marsh said.

Ulman said he understands the concern and would have additional discussions, so he can bring more information and address the issue at the next meeting.

Resident Charles C. Hinckley said he had several issues with the application, including the need to follow Coastal Area Management procedure, traffic safety concerns, that the proposed road has a 14 percent grade and comments from the fire department are not in the record.

Gregory Stroud, the executive director of SECoast, a nonprofit organization and town resident, said that while he supports affordable housing, the organization asked a month ago how pedestrians can safely exit the development and reach Halls Road and how drivers can safely make left turns out of the development but has not received an answer. He said he respects the traffic engineer but the supplemental traffic report was submitted Tuesday, so he could not look at it.

"If you want to propose an affordable housing project almost anyplace else in Old Lyme, we will either be neutral or supportive, and I don't care if it's on Lyme Street, if it's on Hatchetts Hill Road, if it's on Halls Road, we will try our best, but this site has fundamental problems," Stroud said.

Laura Fitzpatrick-Nager, an Old Lyme resident and associate minister at the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme, said the church has supported HOPE Partnership's efforts to create "first-rate affordable housing."

"This current project, though only for 37 families, seems to me to be a wonderful opportunity to share what we have here in Old Lyme, an amazing community with resources, and this also provides opportunity for more diversity of neighbors, neighbors struggling to make ends meet," she said. She added that the housing also would provide an opportunity to educate more children at a time of declining enrollment.

Specifically, Tuesday's public hearing concerned the first application. The commission opened the second hearing, but the developer did not present any information on the second application.

Tuesday's meeting ended about 10:30 p.m., which is how long the auditorium was available. More public comments are expected on Monday.

k.drelich@theday.com 

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