Halls Road committee looking to 'create something different'
Old Lyme — The Halls Road Improvements Committee is taking a different approach toward its vision for a vibrant, walkable neighborhood as it seeks legal advice, architectural designs and more public input on changes to both zoning regulations and the streetscape itself.
A zoning proposal to create a Halls Road Village District was abruptly withdrawn by First Selectman Tim Griswold, in a letter last month on the day of a planned public hearing, to provide time for "a more thorough review." He first signed off on the application, and then withdrew it, in his capacity as the town's top official.
Now, the committee is adopting what members in a project update called "a more flexible approach" that does not constrain current property owners. Instead of creating a village district where anyone constructing a new building or renovating an existing one would need to conform to new regulations, it creates an overlay zone that business owners and developers can choose if they want to.
Committee Chairwoman Edie Twining said the overlay zone addresses concerns that the Village District model was too restrictive.
"We're trying to create something different," she said.
Both the village district model and the overlay zone hinge upon the same basic premise: promoting walkability, bikeability, small businesses and apartment living to create a vibrant neighborhood instead of a series of strip malls. It's all part of a vision outlined in a $48,000 master plan from the Glastonbury-based engineering firm BSC Group that was commissioned by the committee as part of an effort going back more than six years.
Based on initial discussions, the overlay zone would allow business owners and developers certain options not currently allowed on Halls Road. At the foundational level, that means putting up mixed-use buildings close to the road with commercial space on the first floor and residential above. But it also could mean allowing 10,000-square-foot retail spaces instead of limiting them to 5,000 square feet like the current regulations do, encouraging electric vehicle charging stations, or permitting pharmacies with drive-thru windows.
Those are the kind of details that are going to be hashed out over the coming months, according to Twining. She said she hopes to schedule a public workshop for late January to get input from residents, in addition to continuing to have conversations with individual property owners.
Both Twining and committee member David Kelsey emphasized the details about the overlay zone discussed so far are preliminary.
Kelsey is a Halls Road property owner. He has been critical of the committee's first round of suggested changes to the zoning regulations but described himself as "happier" with the overlay zone because of the flexibility it provides.
"I do think we're on a pretty good path and the conversations hopefully will be constructive and productive," he said.
The committee also hopes to hire a land use attorney so it will be fully prepared when it goes before the Zoning Commission again, Twining said.
A budget document prepared by the committee shows it is estimating $10,000 in legal fees and another $9,000 for assistance from BSC Group to get through the zoning application process, plus $760 in application fees.
The budget document also shows $20,500 in legal and design fees associated with the second focus of the project: streetscape improvements.
The committee plans to make the request for the supplemental appropriation — which adds up to $40,260 in the budget document — at the annual town meeting in January, according to Twining.
Elements for the infrastructure side of the master plan include sidewalks, crosswalks, street lights, walking trails, landscaping and a pedestrian bridge over the Lieutenant River.
The committee expects the improvements to be funded predominantly through grants from entities including the state Department of Transportation, Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and Department of Economic and Community Development.
The largest potential funding source is the DOT Local Transportation Capital Improvement Program, or LOTCIP. "If we luck out, we might make $2 million on that grant," Twining said.
Budget numbers show the committee also plans to seek an $800,000 grant from DEEP's Recreational Trails Program.
Kurt Prochorena of BSC told committee members at their December meeting that the firm provided a quote for drawing up initial designs to be used as part of the LOTCIP application process. He said the designs will help show the DOT that the committee and town are committed to the project.
Kelsey asked why the $48,000 already spent on the master plan wasn't enough for the state DOT to use in making its funding decision.
Budget numbers put the cost of the initial engineering designs at $13,500. Once LOTCIP grant funding is approved — in 2023 or 2024, based on the committee's preliminary timeline — the town would be required to pay for full-scale surveys and designs estimated at $200,000. The grant would not cover the recommended 20% contingency account set aside for unexpected expenses, either.
Prochorena identified the Lower River Valley Council of Governments — which is the entity devoted to regional planning in multiple Middlesex County towns as well as Lyme and Old Lyme — as an important ally in the process going forward. He said he wasn't aware of any projects that passed muster with the COG that were ultimately denied by the DOT.
RiverCOG Executive Director Samuel S. Gold on Wednesday said the town will need to partner with the DOT and property owners along Halls Road to make the project a success. He said the preliminary drawings will "further the planning and conversation" with both of those groups.
He said he hopes the drawings, if created, will illustrate the vision in the master plan for a "vibrant, mixed-use corridor" accessible on foot and bicycle, as well as by motor vehicles.
"This vision may not move forward in its entirety," he said, "but hopefully the best of the concept will be incorporated into future development in the Halls Road corridor."