No change in zoning for Old Lyme’s Halls Road
Old Lyme― The Zoning Commission this week narrowly rejected change for Halls Road.
The commission voted 3-2 in favor of a proposal designed to transform the town’s main commercial thoroughfare into a livable, walkable and shoppable neighborhood center. What looked like a victory on paper was actually a loss because the motion needed four votes – a supermajority – to pass.
Committee Chairwoman Edie Twining on Tuesday said maintaining the status quo means development on the commercial strip will continue to be dominated by the kind of development residents don’t want.
“Really, it’s a big loss for the town,” she said. “It means we still are open to developers wanting to shore up properties for highway convenience stores and gas stations. That’s pretty much the only type of development people are interested in along Halls Road.”
The Planning Commission in November declined to endorse the project, a move that triggered the need for approval by a supermajority of the Zoning Commission. The two votes in opposition came from alternate members Michael Barnes and Sloan Danenhower.
The application from the Halls Road Improvements Committee proposed an “overlay” district that would have given developers the option to build apartments or condominiums not otherwise allowed on the street. In exchange, the developers would be required to incorporate shops or restaurants on the first floor of any building.
Committee members have been working since 2015 to make Halls Road more of a destination and less of a pass through between two sets of Interstate 95 ramps. A 2021 master plan from Glastonbury-based engineering firm BSC Group suggested zoning changes to incentivize private development as well as physical improvements such as sidewalks, a pedestrian bridge and walking trails that the town could make.
Danenhower and Barnes were filling in for Republicans Mike Miller and Tammy Tinnerello. Land Use Coordinator Eric Knapp said Miller could not attend the meeting due to an injury and Tinnerello could not vote because she had missed the past two meetings and did not review the audio recordings.
Miller had previously expressed support for the overall concept pending assurances that the language would be clarified to prevent a “Costco-sized building” from going up on Halls Road. The language voted on by commission members on Monday would have set the maximum square footage for a building at 10,000 square feet and the maximum length at 125 feet.
Danenhower on Tuesday cited the lack of water and sewer infrastructure along the street as his main objection.
“It seemed they had the cart before the horse because there’s no infrastructure,” he said. “There’s no way to expand what’s already there.”
And any efforts to build the necessary infrastructure would be a long, slow process if it happens at all, according to Danenhower. He pointed to talk going back decades about installing sewers in the town’s beach communities, which still have not come to fruition.
“That’s the elephant in the room,” he said. “This is all great to bring up these ideas, but you can’t do it without infrastructure.”
Danenhower cited the negative referral from the Planning Commission – with the resulting supermajority requirement – as the other reason the proposal failed.
The Planning Commission in its rationale for the negative referral said it wasn’t clear if the overlay zone was optional or not. And if it is optional, members said, it’s unclear how the mix of standards would be an improvement on the status quo.
They also urged the commission to substitute the word “may” for “shall” in places where developers could make the standards less “cost-prohibitive” without altering the impact of the regulation.
Zoning Commission member Jane Marsh on Tuesday acknowledged the infrastructure concerns but said she voted in support after adding the changes – including the maximum square footage and length requirement for buildings – that she felt would make the proposal less vulnerable to unintended consequences.
“I respect the people on the commission who had misgivings, because trying to imagine development before it happens is very difficult,” she said.
Still, she said “there was something worthy” about the vision for the road.
“I lived with it the way it is for my entire life, so it’s not like I’m suffering. It was more of a hope for the future,” she said.
Twining, the Halls Road Improvements Committee chairwoman, said she will be taking a break from her work on zoning changes but hasn’t given up on the idea. Meanwhile, her committee has selected AI Engineers of Middletown to draw up designs for the public aspect of the project, including construction of a pedestrian bridge, a town green and walking and biking paths on mostly town- and state-owned land between Halls Road and Lyme Street.
The committee received $135,000 in pandemic-relief funding from the town for the design work, which Twining has said will be leveraged to secure millions of dollars in grant funding from the state.
“I think there was a part of me that wanted to throw in the towel and not bother with any of this anymore, but then they’re getting exactly what they want,” she said of those who oppose any sort of change in Old Lyme. “So I don’t think I’m going that route.”