Old Lyme Zoning Commission continues affordable housing hearing until July

Old Lyme — The Zoning Commission on Monday granted a request by the developers of an affordable housing proposal to keep the public hearing open until next month.

HOPE Partnership and Women's Institute for Housing and Economic Development, the applicants proposing the 37-unit River Oaks Commons development on two adjacent parcels owned by Graybill Properties LLC, require additional time to address issues raised by residents and a traffic consultant, said the developers' attorney David Royston. The property is adjacent to the Interstate 95 north Exit 70 off-ramp and Route 156 (Neck Road).

The commission unanimously supported continuing the hearing until 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, July 17 at Lyme-Old Lyme Middle School auditorium, though several residents objected.

The commission made the decision at Monday's continued public hearing in the school auditorium that was attended by about 300 people. More than 500 people had showed up to the opening of the public hearing last week for the application made under the state's affordable housing statutes. The law requires towns that reject affordable housing projects to show that health and safety concerns outweigh the need for affordable housing in their communities.

At Monday's hearing, the commission's traffic consultant, David Sullivan, presented his review of the developers' traffic report.

While he agreed the developers properly analyzed the traffic volume and its  impact, he said the issue is whether right-turning vehicles coming off the highway off-ramp have enough time to stop if a car from the development's driveway is making "an uneducated or uninformed maneuver."

He said the applicant needs to analyze sight lines both for cars coming from the off-ramp and for cars waiting in the driveway to make a left turn.

The public weighed in on the proposal on Monday, with attendees frequently applauding speakers, or at times calling out "No!" to comments they did not agree with. Most speakers opposed the development and raised concerns over the proposal's safety and impact on the area, while resident BJ Bernblum expressed support.

“Old Lyme desperately needs affordable housing, for those folks who already live in town and struggle with the cost of housing in town and for those folks who don’t live in town, but would like to come here if they can afford it," said Bernblum. "I think it is clearly in the best interest of the town to have a heterogeneous population that is welcoming and inclusive of all income groups, and it’s clear to me that, at the moment, folks without a lot of money have a difficult time living here."

He praised the sponsors of the project, adding that it's not to say questions shouldn't be answered.

"I think the questions should be answered, but, if they are answered successfully, it would seem to me that the town — including the opponents of this project who have asserted that they are in favor of affordable housing, just not here — should be looking for a way to make this project workable rather than to defeat it," said Bernblum.

Domenic Papa, an abutting property owner, listed reasons he opposed the proposal, including concerns over noise, pollution, that the driveway is too close to the I-95 exit ramp and the density of the housing on the roughly 6.6-acre site is too great.

“The Route 95 highway system is noisy, dirty and probably toxic from the years of highway runoff,” he said. “By developing that site to accommodate multi-family housing it will require many of the trees to be removed, increasing noise and smog from the highway. What is the plan to keep the noise down to a minimum? Will my property and my surrounding neighbors’ property values decrease because of the added noise and pollutants caused by the removal of so many trees, the runoff water and the amount of pavement required for roads and driveways?”

Pete Thomas, who owns property across from the development, also raised concerns.

"At the onset let me say that my concerns are not about the affordable nature of the housing proposed but rather the development of any high-density housing on an extremely challenged building location whose only entrance is on the highly trafficked state road 156 and is scant feet from the equally busy exit 70 off I-95," he said. 

Thomas further said the commission shouldn't vote on the project until the town's Ethics Commission and ombudsman vet the matter, as he said he has concerns, including that the first selectwoman sits on HOPE's advisory council and that the applicant's attorney has represented the town on other matters.

First Selectwoman Bonnie Reemsnyder is not a member of the Zoning Commission and cannot vote on the application.

In response to criticism that the applicant's attorney, David Royston of the law firm Dzialo, Pickett & Allen, represents several town agencies, Sylvia Rutkowska, one of the firm's partners wrote in a letter provided to the Zoning Commission that the firm is the long-time counsel to the Zoning Board of Appeals, but the firm does not represent any other town agency.

Rutkowska wrote that there is no conflict of interest as the ZBA will have no involvement with the application before the commission.

She said that last summer, Royston received written consent from the ZBA chairwoman at the time, Judy McQuade, who said she had no objections to his representation of HOPE Partnership before the Planning, Zoning and Wetlands commissions and if the applicant needed to go before the ZBA, Royston would recuse himself.

k.drelich@theday.com

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