East Lyme residents call for more preservation, less development
East Lyme — Dozens of residents showed up to tell town officials this week they want the town to protect its natural resources, preserve its environment, purchase more open space, support agriculture, scale back new development and protect the character of downtown Niantic.
Planning Commission member Michelle Williams described it as a near unanimous agreement on what residents want to see for the town over the next decade. Their feedback came as part of a public forum organized by the commission's subcommittee tasked with rewriting the town’s Plan of Conservation and Development, or POCD.
The POCD is a document — currently more than 200 pages long — that town officials, boards and commissions are expected to use as they make decisions related to planning, conservation and development. A POCD is required of every town in Connecticut and must be updated every 10 years under state statute.
A rewritten POCD also is necessary for the town to be eligible to receive a medley of grants and funding, such as the Urban Action Program, Small Town Economic Assistance Program, Clean Water Fund, Drinking Water State Revolving Fund and various housing, historic preservation, brownfields remediation, open space and farmland preservation programs.
Town officials are now in the process of rewriting East Lyme’s new POCD, which is due to the state’s Office of Policy and Management by the end of 2020.
Packing into the town's meeting hall, residents came enthusiastic and well-prepared, ready to present their opinions.
“To me, it was clear we have a community of people who really care about the future of the town,” said Williams, the POCD subcommittee’s chairwoman. “They not only were there for two hours on a Wednesday night, but they came so prepared, and you could tell that a lot of thought, effort, research and careful consideration went to their recommendations and feedback.”
"It was inspiring," she said. "It really illustrated the fabric of the community we are doing this for."
After hearing residents' concerns about protecting the town’s drinking water quality and preserving its watersheds, rivers and coastline, Williams said, “It was also very clear to me that there is a real sentiment in the town that we need to slow down and take stock of what needs to be protected.”
Residents expressed a desire to cut back new development and be better prepared for major emergencies, and expressed concerns about traffic while calling for alternative transportation methods, which included installing new bike paths, building a cross-town walking path and possibly launching a trolley that could connect and transport people between Flanders and Niantic.
This would “enhance the development of both communities,” Finance Board member Rich Steel said. “... I would like to see more integration of the communities and not have the separation and have a feel for more of an East Lyme community, rather than a Niantic and a Flanders.”
Williams said she also noticed a heightened interest in solar installations and the potential negative environmental impacts they may have on nearby land and watercourses, after several residents raised concerns about the damage caused by stormwater runoff on resident John Bialowans Jr.'s property, which sits downstream from a large solar installation known as the Antares Solar Farm on Walnut Hill Road.
Solar installations “are power plants,” said Douglas Schwartz of Groton, who works with the local Save the River-Save the Hills nonprofit environmental group. “And the only appropriate place for them is not in rural residential location zones, but in commercial and industrial zones.”
“East Lyme probably has the distinction of having the worst experience in Connecticut with runoff from the Walnut Hill solar farm,” Schwartz said. “Eastern Connecticut is being attacked by solar developers, almost all of them from out of state. Big money, some of them from out of the country, and we’ve experienced the worst runoff issues in the eastern portion of the state.”
Many residents expressed interest in pursuing and purchasing more open space, with calls for the town to both fund open space purchases and create a comprehensive plan outlining which land parcels should be designated open space.
In particular, the Oswegatchie Hills, located along the western edge of the Niantic River, which is slated for a more than 800-unit development by developer Glenn Russo, was mentioned several times as an area residents would like to see the town purchase and protect. That project is in an ongoing lawsuit between the town and Russo.
“The 236 acre (Oswegatchie Hills) ... has a mile of saltwater frontage on the Niantic River," said Mike Dunn, who is on the board of the Friends of Oswegatchie Hills Nature Preserve. "That’s special. That’s unique. When you talk about planning for a community, that’s an asset that’s worth considering. ... It shouldn’t be developed. In a nutshell, it has steep slopes, shallow depth of bedrock, and the combination of those two is a recipe for disaster.”
State Rep. Doug Dubitsky, R-Chaplin, who is an attorney, said his clients — a group of anonymous “farmers and landowners in East Lyme" — worried the town may place restrictive zoning regulations over their properties, impeding how they can use and sell their land in the future.
“We need to make sure that as we put together a plan of conservation and development, we don’t put limitations on them that will prevent them from giving something of value to their children in the future,” Dubitsky said. “Maybe they will want to develop it. Maybe they will want to put a solar field on it.”
Residents also took a strong interest in preserving both above-ground and underground water sources, with calls to protect the Pattagansett Watershed on the western side of town and the Niantic River, while resident Tom Kalal also called for further protections of the town’s aquifers, which provide the majority of the town's drinking water.
The topic of aquaculture in town also permeated Wednesday’s meeting, with some residents asking the subcommittee to support such practices within the POCD, while others asked that aquaculture not be part of river functions.
Shellfish farmer Tim Londregan, who is currently the subject of a cease-and-desist order issued by the town's Zoning Department, argued that aquaculture should be protected as it is part of the town’s identity — referencing the scallop shell as the town’s emblem — and historically has been encouraged in past conservation plans.
Williams said a draft of the rewritten POCD should be complete by early summer, when it will be presented to the Board of Selectmen for review as well as to a public hearing, before being finalized.
Residents still interested in contributing comments about the plan still may submit their suggestions and are invited to attend subcommittee meetings held at Town Hall.
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