East Lyme passes new village district zoning regulations for downtown Niantic

East Lyme — Downtown Niantic has a unique character and town zoning officials would like to keep it that way.

The Zoning Commission unanimously adopted regulations Thursday night establishing a Village District Overlay Zone, requiring that new and existing buildings maintain the look and feel of the area to protect its charm. The new rules go into effect this month.

The new zone will overlay only the current Commercial Business, or CB, zone in downtown Niantic, which mostly encompasses Main Street from East Pattagansett Road to Smith Avenue and its surrounding neighborhoods, as well as southerly areas off Pennsylvania Avenue. Developers planning new construction and property owners looking to make major renovations in those areas now will require a design review from the Zoning Commission before proceeding with construction.

The review would ensure that proposed changes and new construction adhere to architectural guidelines in the zone regulations and would allow developers and property owners to explain to the commission that their projects will keep with the “architectural fabric” of the district. The commission then will grant a “certificate of design appropriateness,” allowing projects to move forward.

The regulations also outline that property owners looking to make smaller changes in the district — such as repainting a house, planting a tree or installing a new roof — also must inform the Zoning Department before doing so. They will not need to go before the Zoning Commission for approval but will need signoff from the zoning enforcement officer, Bill Mulholland, who currently serves in that role, said Thursday before the commission.

Outlined in the regulations are specific building designs, scales and proportions, with photos to help the commission determine decisions. Specific architectural styles, including certain windows, roof types, entrances, building colors, landscaping, lighting and signage, also have been included.

The proposal was unveiled to the commission in November, after Mulholland spent months drafting the regulations; he said Thursday he based them on state statutes governing village districts. The commission then held a public hearing Thursday, listening to the concerns of two residents who spoke against the proposed changes, before then voting to adopt them.

Timothy O’Byrne-Burke of Smith Avenue said he was strongly against what he called the “draconian” regulations and worried that, if passed, they would take away his and others' property rights.

“This is over-regulation,” he said. “It gives too much power in your hands.”

“I realize you’re not changing the (zone), but you’re adding on an awful lot,” O'Byrne-Burke said. “... You’re going to file cease-and-desist orders against me.” He added he worried he would not be able to paint his house the color he desires, a right he said he should have as a property owner.

In response, Mulholland later explained to the commission that there is an appeals process in place if someone were to disagree with an opinion he may make about home color, or any other decision needed for small changes in the district. In that case, a property owner can be referred to the Zoning Commission or Zoning Board of Appeals, if need be, to argue their opinion.

Kevin Burke, brother of Timothy O'Byrne-Burke, also went before the commission and questioned what could happen when, say, Mulholland retires and the next zoning enforcement officer has a different taste and desires from what's been outlined in the regulations.

While discussing this specific concern with the commission, Mulholland said, “When I do go, you’re the hiring board, so you will hire someone who hopefully knows how to apply this. You have to learn how to use this, as well. There will be a learning curve. It will take a bit of time.”

Mulholland also added that zoning regulations can be amended as times change, should problems arise with a different zoning enforcement officer in the future.

Mulholland also added that up until now, his office and the Zoning Commission have been following nearly identical architectural guidelines adopted as part of zoning regulations the town adopted in 2003 to guide and inspire developers interested in building in East Lyme. Developers, however, are not required by town law to follow those guidelines. 

Mulholland said that the addition of these new regulations will not add a significant work load to either him or those working in the land-use office, as most building proposals submitted already go through a similar design process, "but it will increase your workflow, because the bigger stuff will come to this commission."

"But also remember, how many new buildings we see in downtown Niantic. One every five years? We've had a recent rash, but that's an anomaly. I don't anticipate this putting a burden on you or on us. I'm doing that all anyways. We already spend a vast amount of time with applicants and talking architecture and talking building style, trying to work these buildings into the neighborhood."

m.biekert@theday.com

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