Old Lyme’s zoning on board with possible Halls Road improvements

Old Lyme — After years of envisioning a new commercial district on Halls Road, the Improvements Committee overseeing those changes received confirmation from the Zoning Commission this past week that the two entities could work together to further a new vision for the road.

While no zoning regulations were changed at Monday's Zoning Commission meeting, the possibility for collaboration could enable the Halls Road Improvements Committee — tasked with conceptualizing and promoting a master plan to morph the road into a more livable town center over the coming decades — to move forward with some of its goals.

Beyond installing sidewalks and crosswalks, as well as other streetscape upgrades, along town-owned edges of the road known as the right of way, the potential changes could include redistricting Halls Road as a village district, allowing for its own specific zoning laws not applicable to other commercially zoned properties in town. The redistricting could permit mixed-use buildings and encourage private business owners lining Halls Road to "reimagine" how their properties look and function, consistent with creating a livable town center, First Selectwoman Bonnie Reemsnyder said in an interview. A village district also would allow zoning to set an aesthetic design for the road in keeping with the character of the town.

With business-friendly zoning updates, Reemsnyder explained, property owners on Halls Road may be able to rebuild shopping centers or offices as mixed-use buildings closer to the road. Or, as an alternative, they could sell their properties to developers newly attracted to the town.

Under commercial zoning laws now in place, property owners along Halls Road must set buildings at least 60 feet back from the road and must provide a certain amount of parking spaces for individual businesses, as well as abide by certain building heights, among other stipulations in line with the road's commercial zoning designation, Reemsnyder said.

“By changing what the demands are on their property, they may see that investing in their property and doing something different may be an advantage to them,” she said. “It could mean that they can do things that, in the past, they couldn’t even consider. And they may consider developing the property in a different light.”

When asked if the costly expense of rebuilding could deter property owners, Reemsnyder said that as buildings age, it may make sense for owners to reconsider ways to “yield a maximum return on their investments.”

“This isn’t a rush to get anyone to do certain things,” she said. “For now, we are focusing on the right of way and what we can put in there. But we are also trying to open up new opportunities for land owners.”

“We won’t insist upon anything,” Reemsnyder continued. “But we will give examples of what now could be done with the changes in regulations, if there are any changes to regulations.”

‘Not an easy project’

Formed in 2015, the Halls Road Committee has worked to create a master plan that would re-envision Halls Road as a bustling town center after some residents suggested creating sidewalks and crosswalks, Reemsnyder, who is an ex-officio member of the committee, has said.

Thinking beyond the immediate, however, Reemsnyder, as well as would-be members of the Improvements Committee, thought it vital to build a comprehensive plan for the road allowing for increased walkability and green spaces, as well as the ability for mixed-use residential buildings. They say turning Halls Road into a livable town center has three direct benefits: helping small businesses not only remain in town, but thrive; enticing people to shop and dine in town while attracting new residents; and further stabilizing the tax base.

“The issue we are dealing with is that change keeps on happening. Halls Road will keep on changing,” Reemsnyder said, explaining the need to think long-term at Monday’s meeting. “I fear that some of the stores there might start suffering. And like it or not, we won’t have enough people to keep our current stores thriving. And if stores don’t thrive, they aren’t going to stay.”

Improvements Committee member Edie Twining estimated at Monday's meeting that the town receives around $220,000 annually in tax revenue from businesses lining Halls Road. But with the potential ability for property owners to transform their properties, tax revenue from the area could increase to $575,000 annually, she said.

“This would help the town become a thriving center rather than something that could die off,” Twining said. “Something that would help the town prosper instead of withering away.”

“This is not an easy project we are recommending,” she added. “But at the same time, we don’t want to just say, ‘OK, let’s put sidewalks here' and then have to tear them up in 10 years.”

Based on suggestions from Zoning Commission Chair Jane Cable at Monday’s meeting, the Improvements Committee will face several difficult but not impossible challenges with its vision. Because of the road’s proximity to Interstate 95 and its current functionality as a quick throughway for motorists, Cable said tertiary roads may be needed to keep traffic flowing through town. Other Zoning Commission members also questioned the plan’s feasibility considering that Halls Road is a state road, as well as a federal highway, requiring the Department of Transportation to be involved.

Responding to that, Twining said, “Traffic is the biggest part of the project we have to do right and we have to find a way to do it.”

Reemsnyder added, “That’s why a project like this doesn’t happen overnight. This is something you have to talk through, to talk with the community about,” while also stating that a Halls Road project could be possible over time, as has been the case in other nearby towns, despite the road being state-controlled.

Zoning Secretary Jane Marsh admitted she “was having a little bit of trouble” with the project because of how Halls Road presently functions as a connector between Lyme Street and Route 156, where on- and off-ramps to Interstate 95 also are located.

“I think things develop organically for what people want them for, whether they like the way it looks or not,” Marsh said. “It has served a purpose and it’s serving a purpose not just to get you to the Big Y.”

Assuming new zoning laws allowing for a re-imagined town center are successfully put in place, Reemsnyder said the town could start moving forward with a “master vision” for the road, which she specified will be a multi-faceted process requiring communication and collaboration between several town boards and commissions — including the zoning commission — as well as state authorities, private property owners and possible developers, and residents.

But first, the town must agree on a master vision, Reemsnyder said, or else securing grants to help finance sidewalk and streetscape improvements, among other changes the town would be responsible for in the right of way, may be difficult.

Cable said the town implemented a similar redistricting strategy while it was considering improvements to the Sound View neighborhood, the first phase of which was completed last summer.

“I think you have to create that area. Define it. And then have special zoning for that area,” Cable said Monday. “I think the commission would love to work with you once you develop more than just a scheme.”

Gathering community input

Thus far, the Improvements Committee said that, in an effort to cement a master plan for the road, it has been conducting community outreach efforts, which have included speaking with Halls Road property and business owners about the plans, as well as other various town groups, such as the Chamber of Commerce and soon the Duck River Garden Club.

Having also collaborated with the Yale Urban Design Workshop over the last year to plan for and design possible visions for the road, the Improvements Committee has worked with the town’s Economic Development Commission to ensure that future visions for Halls Road align with EDC development initiatives.

The EDC also has secured about $50,000 in town funding for a townwide economic development study with Connecticut Economic Resource Center, or CERC — a public-private nonprofit agency that works with towns across the state — pending voter approval of the budget on May 20. Approximately $8,000 already has been funded to finance the first steps of that study, while an additional $44,160 to complete the study, which would include surveying local businesses, has been worked into next year’s budget.

Reemsnyder has said the study would offer a big-picture look at the town’s current business climate, while also providing strategic insight toward development efforts, effectively allowing the town to learn which businesses could best be sustained where — knowledge, she said, that is especially valuable in the wake of proposals to improve Halls Road.

The Improvements Committee is planning an open house on June 15 at Town Hall to allow the public an opportunity to offer opinions on improving Halls Road as well as the possibility to view various renderings of what the road could look like.

m.biekert@theday.com

Editor's Note: This version reflects that Improvements Committee member Edie Twining estimated the current amount of tax revenue from Halls Road.

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