Old Lyme affordable-housing hearing draws crowds, continued to September

Old Lyme — A public hearing on an affordable-housing application near Interstate 95 that has drawn large crowds to a series of lengthy meetings held in the Lyme-Old Lyme Middle School auditorium will continue to September.

The Zoning Commission voted late Tuesday evening to extend to Sept. 10 the hearing that began last month on the proposed 37-unit housing development, after the developers requested more time.

About 275 people showed up to Tuesday's hearing, with some audience members interjecting comments and cheering or booing.

Many speakers expressed opposition to the location of the proposed development and raised concerns that ranged from traffic safety and accidents to how many schoolchildren the development would bring. Supporters, on the other hand, said the development would provide needed affordable housing for first responders, teachers and other working individuals and for local families looking to remain in town.

Tuesday's meeting represented the third opportunity for public comment on the applications from Women's Institute for Housing and Economic Development and HOPE Partnership to develop two adjacent lots by I-95 north's Exit 70 off-ramp and Neck Road as River Oak Commons I and II.

The developers are applying under the state's affordable-housing statutes, which require commissions that reject applications to show that public safety and health concerns are greater than the need for affordable housing.

Kristin Anderson, development manager for Women's Institute for Housing and Economic Development, requested an extension of the public hearing to allow the developers' engineers and architects time to respond to letters from July 9 and 12 from the town's consulting engineer and a July 16 letter from the fire marshal.

The letters raise several issues, including access for emergency vehicles, and note that sections of the development's driveway are at a 14 percent gradient, which exceeds the generally accepted maximum of a 10 percent gradient. David Royston, attorney for the developers, said their experts will address all the issues.

Anderson said more time also is needed because the commission and applicants are waiting for Ledge Light Health District to complete a review of the plans, which is expected to happen soon. A report with additional analysis by the developers' traffic engineer will be ready by the end of the week.

Royston presented the commission with a report from Geoscience Technical Services Inc. in response to concerns from an individual at the last hearing that lead found in runoff from I-95 could create a potential hazard for drinking water and groundwater on the site. Royston said Geoscience Technical Services performed soil and groundwater testing on the site and found the total lead concentration is typical of Connecticut undisturbed soils.

During public comment, resident Pamela Hamilton said it was important to preserve the town's bucolic and historical nature.

"It is crucial that we preserve this serene landscape," she said. "It is food for the soul, and it can easily be given away. The gateway to this treasure, our treasure, is Exit 70. The tone is set there, our character identified."

Hamilton added that she hasn't heard any speakers at the hearings say that affordable housing shouldn't be built in Old Lyme, but instead are appealing that it be built in another location in town for "a long list of sensible reasons."

Resident Bill Lehrman was among several residents who spoke about safety concerns over placing a development close to I-95.

"You cannot do away with the safety problems it will cause," he said. "There is just no way."

Tony Lyons, president of HOPE's board of directors, said he wanted to dispel misinformation and said HOPE is concerned about the community and is not profit-motivated. He said residents of HOPE's affordable-housing development in Old Saybrook mostly come from the town or have ties to it and include town employees, Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans and families in town who lost their homes through foreclosure during the mortgage crisis.

"Everyone here in this room, I would speculate, knows somebody who has a housing issue, whether that's a millennial kid who's living on your couch, whether that's a senior parent, because there's no senior housing, whether that is someone you know who works with you that has nowhere to go," he said. "That is what we are looking to help address." 

During the beginning of the meeting, the Zoning Commission read aloud a letter from First Selectwoman Bonnie Reemsnyder at her request, in which she responded to several comments expressed at meetings, on social media or by email and to her, and said she has neither a conflict of interest nor a perceived conflict of interest in the project.

She said she sits on the Advisory Council of HOPE, not the board of directors, and has no voting powers. She also has no vote on the Old Lyme Zoning Commission or personal stake in the development.

"Someone does not have a conflict of interest merely because he or she sits on the governing boards of two organizations that are involved in a transaction," she said. "This often happens, especially in small communities. Rather, a conflict may exist only if that person votes on the transaction, or otherwise attempts to influence the decision without disclosure of the dual roles."

k.drelich@theday.com

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