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Old Lyme Economic Development Commission pushes shoreline revitalization, again

Old Lyme — The Economic Development Commission again is calling for the revitalization of Route 156 and Sound View Beach.

It's going to take strong leadership, a cohesive vision and broad community support, something EDC member Howard Margules said has been lacking in numerous efforts over the decades to capitalize on the town's beautiful and ecologically significant shoreline.

In a proposal drafted by Margules, he described the commercial areas from Route 156 at Mile Creek to the police station and Hartford Avenue as "wracked with significant issues," including economic decline, parking problems, public nuisances and blight.

"Out of town investors sit on empty commercial properties along Route 156, in some cases for over ten years, which projects an image of declining economic vitality," he wrote.

A prominent example is the formerly thriving Cherrystones restaurant, which sits empty since it closed in 2012.

Resident Carolyn Miranda, who has been vocal at various public meetings about the need for improvements along the shoreline, spoke during the EDC's public comment period to describe the state road as lined on the north by vacant and unattractive commercial properties and on the other side by beautiful marshlands, vistas and well-tended homes.

"If I were an out-of-towner driving down to Sound View, I'd kind of be perplexed and wonder what is going on here," she said. 'Beautiful on the right, really bad looking for the town on the left."

In the Sound View area, Margules said residents are mixed about how much development they want. "Some want none, some want only to restore retail, and others would like to see a mix of residential and retail."

The commission is proposing that the Board of Selectmen create a Gateway Project Committee to come up with a master plan for the area that reflects the opinions of the entire town. The idea is similar to the process guiding the redevelopment of Halls Road, where a committee is using a master plan devised for $48,000 by architects from the Glastonbury-based BSC Group as the framework for change.

Margules pointed to the EDC's own extensive efforts 20 years ago to spearhead change along Route 156 and at Sound View Beach as a missed opportunity. The work led to the creation of a new village district in the commercial section of Hartford Avenue but didn't revitalize it.

"And that wasn't the first effort," Margules said. "They all just drop into a black hole somewhere and nothing seems to ever get done."

According to The Day archives, the EDC in 2001 hired an architect to study the area, and findings in the resultant report were used as the basis for the Sound View Task Force and eventually the new village district. The 2005 update to the regulations relaxed some of the town's strict zoning rules to encourage property owners to renovate their buildings.

Sound View back then was still trying to recover from a seedy reputation cultivated when, from the 1940s to the '70s, Hartford Avenue was lined with 13 bars, a strip joint and a brothel. The Naval Submarine Base banned its sailors from visiting during World War II.

Ensuing efforts to resurrect the area have taken a "piecemeal" approach that lacks a comprehensive vision for the shoreline, according to Margules.

The town in 2013 got a federal transportation grant administered through the state DOT for improvements that included a bike lane, town green and restrooms as part of a project that was selected as a priority by the regional council of governments. While the town green and restrooms were scrapped due to cost, completed streetscape changes included handicapped-accessible sidewalks, "bump-outs," landscaping, improved drainage, bike racks and a share-the-road bikeway.

More recently, the town's Community Connectivity Grant Committee used a $400,000 grant from the state to add 5-feet-wide sidewalks on the western portion of Hartford Avenue and a portion of Route 156, and is in the process of finalizing a plan for a bus stop along the state road.

Margules and commission member Joseph Camean, the task force chairman 20 years ago, agreed any hope for significant change rests on strong leadership.

"The town is very, very good at studying issues and then we're not as great at implementing them," Margules said. "We need that leadership."

Camean said he doesn't want to burden selectmen but added, "somehow I think it has to come from them."

The commission voted to present their proposal to selectmen in February.

First Selectman Tim Griswold on Thursday said he wasn't sure what the EDC had in mind but acknowledged "in the big picture, that area could be developed a little more."

"I think we would probably be open to some ideas," he said. "We're still working on the Halls Road stuff, so we probably can't juggle too many balls at once."

Margules said the Gateway Project Committee should include representatives from the Sound View Commission, each beach association, the Planning, Zoning, Affordable Housing, Harbor Management and Economic Development commissions and the zoning enforcement officer.

He suggested the committee also would need a consultant like the Halls Road group.

The EDC member described Old Lyme as being at a disadvantage because there's no town planner to take charge of projects like these. That's why a committee of knowledgeable, dedicated volunteers is so important, according to Margules.

Professional planners take a holistic look at transportation, economic development, housing and environmental protection to help guide growth in communities.

The Day archives show Old Lyme had its first and only town planner more than 20 years ago. Harry Smith, who now works in Branford, left after one year on the job to take a planning role in Colchester, according to the report.

Selectmen had created the position at the recommendation of an employment consultant and in an effort to improve public service in the land-use departments.

Griswold, the first selectman then and now — he served in the town's top seat from 1997 to 2011 and now again starting in 2019 — said the position "wasn't renewed."

The town currently employs Dan Bourret as land use coordinator, a role that includes enforcing zoning and inland wetlands regulations.

Town planner job descriptions typically require a higher level of education and come with a higher salary. "Right at the moment, that isn't on the table," Griswold said of adding a town planner.

Selectwoman Martha Shoemaker said she could not comment on the EDC Gateway Project proposal because she didn't know enough about it yet. But, she said, "If we're going to go forward with some of these plans for Halls Road, Route 156, etc., we should have a planner on board."

e.regan@theday.com

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