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    Friday, May 24, 2024

    East Lyme shuts down new housing options in downtown Niantic

    East Lyme ― The Zoning Commission this week moved to “preserve the charm” of downtown Niantic by effectively prohibiting the construction of new three-story buildings with shops on the bottom and apartments on top.

    The 4-1 vote, with Chairwoman Anne Thurlow against, was taken despite opposition from the Planning Commission and an acknowledgment from the zoning commissioners that the amendment language needed “tweaking.”

    The amended regulations no longer allow new mixed-use developments in the Niantic business district.

    But owners of existing buildings can convert the second floor to apartments or construct a second story, residential addition – but only on the current footprint.

    The point is to prevent developers from buying up multiple properties, bulldozing the homes and businesses there, and putting up new buildings that some residents complained don’t fit in with Niantic’s unique character.

    Freestanding multifamily housing developments were already prohibited in the downtown area. Now, the only remaining housing option has been dramatically curtailed.

    Commission member Norm Peck III, who championed the amendment, said recent events prompted the change. He pointed to the approval last month of builder and investor David Preka’s plans for a 16,900-square-foot building on Main Street, which includes space for four shops on the lower level and 18 apartments above.

    Critics of that project during public hearings brought up comparisons to the yellow “behemoth” known as The Norton that went up just over a year ago. The three-story, 32,928-square-foot building overlooking Niantic Bay has 12 condominiums and four businesses, including the popular Sift Bake Shop.

    Peck said the public “spoke very loudly” about the demolition of three buildings – including a popular eatery and a 1894 residence with four apartments – to make way for Preka’s development.

    “We basically want to curb that, and save that which has helped downtown Niantic thrive,” he said. “And try to preserve the charm.”

    The mixed-use model is promoted in planning circles as a way to mix retail, restaurants, offices and multifamily housing to create a village feel.

    The Planning Commission in April unanimously agreed the proposed amendment was inconsistent with the town’s foundational planning document, revised in 2020, that prioritizes commercial options in the downtown area with an option for apartments on the upper floors.

    Planning department documents show Planning Commission Kirk Scott sent an April 14 letter to Thurlow asking for more time to study the issue. They also suggested forming a joint subcommittee to come up with compromise language.

    Don’t delay

    Peck at the Thursday meeting urged his fellow members not to delay the vote. Members had already continued the public hearing once in order to give them time to review the planning commission’s objections.

    Commission Alternate Jay Ginsberg agreed with Peck.

    “I think that to delay this is opening a door for people to rush in and try to get in under the wire before we do something about this problem, and we may lose some of the buildings that we want to keep,” he said.

    Peck declined to elaborate on demolition “rumors” he’s been hearing that led him to push for a hasty resolution Thursday night.

    Members will discuss possible “tweaks” to the mixed-use regulations in the first week of June, according to the motion approving the text amendment. Any further changes require a public hearing.

    Director of Planning Gary Goeschel said Friday the Zoning Commission never responded to the letter from the Planning Commission asking to collaborate on the issue.

    He described the text amendment as hastily written and approved.

    “I don’t understand the urgency other than the fear of another large, massed building,” he said.

    He described it as counterproductive to limit housing options amid a statewide housing shortage intensified in this area by the booming submarine industry.

    “Knowing there’s housing demand and need, how are we accommodating that by eliminating new mixed-use buildings in the downtown?” he asked.

    No more status quo

    Eric Goodman, developer of The Norton with business partner Kody Blake of K Blake and Company, said limiting the development options on Main Street will make properties there less valuable. That means less tax revenue for the town and less incentive for owners to maintain their properties.

    “If you’re now saying to people ‘you’ve got to keep things as they are,’ how are you going to encourage them to keep up their properties,” he asked.

    Goodman said the previous owner of the property was paying $15,000 to $18,000 in property taxes before it was redeveloped but now it will generate $200,000 in taxes for the town.

    All but two of the units have sold, with one under contract. Prices for the units range from $425,000 to $1,195,000, according to the company’s website.

    “Mixed use is what people want. They want to live downtown now. They want to walk to businesses. They want to park their car and leave it there,” he said.

    Both Goodman and Goeschel argued opposition from those who came out to public hearings doesn’t represent the public at large.

    Eighteen people spoke against the project over two public hearings, according to meeting minutes. Four spoke or wrote a letter in favor.

    Goeschel pointed out there are 13,298 registered voters in town. He said those who are satisfied with the status quo wouldn’t necessarily be motivated to come out to a public hearing.

    “Well, the status quo just changed,” he said.

    e.regan@theday.com

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