Owner moving to tear down former dance hall in Old Lyme

Old Lyme — The owner of Sound View’s O’Connor’s Dance Hall, also known for a while as Kiddieland, says he’s moving forward with plans to demolish the building — which has sat abandoned and blighted on Hartford Avenue for several years — in hopes to develop the property into housing.

Describing the building as an eyesore Monday, property owner Frank Noe said by phone, “I’ve wanted to knock it down because I’m embarrassed about it and it’s a liability to me. ... Now I’m going through the process of doing what I have to do.”

Besides recently sending out demolition notices to abutting neighbors — the first step of many as part of obtaining a demolition permit from the town’s building department — Noe said he has held several conversations with former town zoning enforcement officer Keith Rosenfeld over the last couple of years. He said he's also spoken to several town commissions, as well as the Board of Selectmen, in an effort to determine whether demolishing and developing the site is feasible.

Since purchasing the property for $110,000 while it was under foreclosure in 2013, Noe said he’s tried to create plans to re-develop the property. The building, which is just over 100 feet long on Hartford Avenue, is two stories tall and directly abuts Martino Road, takes up nearly the entire footprint the plot. Noe said he has held back from moving forward, however, while he’s waited for the sewer referendum to pass and while trying to navigate strict town zoning regulations.

According to those regulations, the property is considered both a nonconforming structure and a nonconforming piece of land — meaning that neither the structure nor the land itself meets the town’s setback requirements, lot size and building height restrictions, among other points, Zoning Commission Chair Jane Cable said Tuesday.

Cable said that because so many of the properties in the town’s beach neighborhoods are nonconforming, the Zoning Commission passed a new regulation several years ago allowing property owners to make changes without a zoning variance so long as the changes don’t increase already-existing nonconformities.

“I didn’t do my due diligence at that time I bought the property to know about the zoning regulations that were in place,” Noe said. But now that town voters recently passed a referendum authorizing bonding to place sewers throughout the Sound View beach community, Noe said he is better situated to develop the 0.2-acre property into an apartment complex.

"When I bought the building, I had some intentions of doing something with it. But I also knew I couldn't do anything until sewers came in," he said. "Sewers were the key to moving this along, and that's what made me move along a little bit now."

Noe, who is an Old Lyme resident and also owns the building hosting Kokomo’s Restaurant and Bar on the same road, said that he had received permission from Rosenfeld to move forward with the demolition before Rosenfeld left his position earlier this month and that he soon hopes to receive permission from the town’s building department, as well. Noe said he has no intentions of renovating the existing structure.

On Monday, Building Official Mark Wayland said that Noe will receive permission to demolish the building once he has provided proof that: he’s sent demolition notices to abutting neighbors, the building has been disconnected from power, he has a contract with a licensed demolition contractor and an air quality control study has been conducted.

Wayland added that should the air quality control surveyors find asbestos in the building, for example, Noe would need to remove that or any other air contaminant before proceeding with demolition.

Last May, Noe received a notice from Ledge Light Health District detailing violations of the Public Health Code, including peeling paint on the exterior of the building and paint chips on the ground in front of the building, according to town records. Noe said Monday he has since addressed the issue and that it highlighted a need for the building to be removed altogether.

The 10,000-square-foot building is considered by the state’s Historic Preservation Office part of the Sound View Historic District, which is “eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places because of its significance as an early twentieth century seasonal beach resort,” said Jenny Fields Scofield, National Register & Architectural Survey Coordinator at the State Historic Preservation Office.

According to an application the Preservation Office filed to register Sound View as a historic district with the National Register of Historic Places in 2016, O'Connor's Dance Hall had become a popular venue in Sound View by the 1920s, hosting dances every summer weekend, while also featuring "an outside concert every Thursday night and one amateur night every summer."

“This type of historic development is part of the character of Connecticut’s coastline. Sound View was established in 1892 and initially became a popular summer destination for Irish and Italian immigrants,” Scofield wrote by email Thursday. “The district is listed on the State Register of Historic Places.”

The designation, she explained, is only honorary, and doesn’t prevent private property owners of historic structures from making changes.

It remains unclear whether Noe intends to build a structure that would conform to zoning laws, according to interim zoning officer JH Torrance Downes, who is also director of the Lower Connecticut River Valley Council of Governments.

In years past, Noe has informally presented ideas to build a residential development to the Zoning and Sound View commissions, as well as the Board of Selectmen, detailing aspirations of a 15- to 17-unit condominium building 35 feet in height, according to meeting minutes.

Downes said that he was not sure which other hurdles Noe would need to overcome with the town’s zoning department before moving forward with his demolition plans, but he possibly would need a zoning variance depending on what he wanted to build in the future.

Downes added that while speaking with Noe on Monday, Noe indicated he hoped to demolish the building in the next 10 days.

“I’m trying to find the legalities of nonconforming laws,” Downes said. “I won’t make an interpretation until I speak with the attorney. There’s still questions about what (Noe) can and can’t do and town officials are doing the best that they can to provide him with the best guidance possible before going through with the demolition.”

m.biekert@theday.com

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