Is East Lyme being overdeveloped?
East Lyme ― Residents of the town hailed in the New York Times as “clean, safe, peaceful and quiet” don’t want to be like the more recognizable tourist town to the east.
Joan Gignac, walking with friends along Main Street on a quiet weekday morning, said she moved to Niantic just over 10 years ago after visiting by boat for years prior.
“We do not want the problems Mystic has,” she said, describing traffic and parking issues in the bustling maritime village.
Niantic, she said, is eclectic and homey: “And we’d like it to stay that way.”
The burgeoning Main Street with a view of Niantic Bay includes a 1.1-mile concrete boardwalk and small businesses tucked predominantly into one- or two-story buildings and old homes. There are restaurants, bookstores, a children’s museum, a cinema-turned-community-theater and shops with gifts, clothing and antiques.
The town is drawing visitors for all the right reasons, according to Gignac. But she said it’s growing too big, too fast.
“There’s going to be development,” she said. “We just need to keep it under control.”
Over the past decade, there have been more than 600 apartments and condominiums popping up in residential complexes and developments that mix housing and commercial options.
The pace of growth in town was hastened by the opening of Costco in 2019 and the construction of hundreds of nearby apartments and condominiums in the Flanders section of town. Other projects over the past decade include two large-scale mixes of residential units and apartments on Main Street, 133 condominiums one street over, 88 apartments on rural North Bride Brook Road a mile from the interstate’s Rocky Neck Connector, and 56 townhomes on the other side near the recently refurbished police station.
Three of those developments were approved under a state statute that promotes affordable housing by making it more difficult for local zoning commissions to reject applications when some of the units are offered at cheaper rates. About 120 of the apartments and condominiums are set aside for those who make less than 80% of the area’s median income, which is $112,300 for a family of four.
Out of scale
Fears of overdevelopment in town contributed to an Election Day shakeup on the Zoning Commission that displaced chairwoman Anne Thurlow, who is a real estate agent, and fellow Republican Mike Schmitt. Elected in their place were three Democrats, among them one urban planning professor and one local farmer who have been critical of multiple recent zoning proposals.
Gary Pivo, the professor who worked for 35 years at the University of Washington and University of Arizona, said during his campaign that actions by the Zoning Commission don’t match the vision for the town laid out in the foundational planning document known as the Plan of Conservation and Development.
The plan, approved in 2020, calls for striking a balance between economic development and preservation of the town’s “character.”
He said that balance is not evident in the 16,900-square-foot building approved this year on Main Street with space for four shops on the lower level and 18 apartments above. The plan from builder and investor David Preka for ZDM Properties LLC will demolish three buildings, including an 1894 residence and the former home of the recently-relocated Cafe SoL.
Zoning official Bill Mulholland said Preka has not yet applied for a building permit but expects the project to move forward.
Pivo calls it an example of overbuilding.
“Its length along Main Street, for example, will equal about 11 cars parked end to end, while other buildings there are typically only two-and-a-half to three cars long,” he said.
Pivo calculated the approved building will be longer than the Bayside building across the street, which was built in 2015 with 18 one-bedroom and six two-bedroom units over four commercial spaces. He cited the Bayside as a factor in the creation five years later of the Niantic Village Design District as a way to make sure future building projects reflect the area’s New England character.
Projects in the new overlay district require a design review from the Zoning Commission. Outlined in the regulations are specific looks, scales and proportions with photos to help the commission determine what fits and what doesn’t.
Zoning commission members in approving the ZDM project said the development met the standards laid out in the regulations. To reject the plan and avoid legal action in the future, the commission would have had to show the proposal didn’t conform with zoning regulations.
Then-member Terry Granatek put it this way: “Do there need to be some changes down the road? Possibly. But as it stands right now, it fits.”
But Pivo disagreed. He subsequently complained to Mullholland that the commission did not catch an error in the applicant’s lot size calculations. The result is a building 33% larger than allowed by the regulations, according to Pivo.
Mulholland did not dispute the mistake. But a July legal opinion from town attorney Mark Zamarka said the town cannot rescind a zoning approval, even if it was issued in error, unless there’s a provision in the town’s zoning regulations allowing them to do so. East Lyme’s regulations do not authorize commission members to revoke an approval.
Zamarka also cited legal doctrine that prevents the agency from reversing course after a decision if the applicant would be harmed. He said ZDM Properties representatives advised the town that complying with the lot size regulation would make the entire project economically unfeasible.
Pivo doesn’t buy the argument that fixing the mistake wouldn’t be feasible for the developer.
“I call that socially irresponsible development,” he said. He pointed to research published by himself and other planning experts over the past 20 years that refutes the argument developers can’t afford better projects.
“The research shows that buildings that are more beautiful, preserve historic character, preserve a sense of place, foster walkability, save water and energy, or protect open space may cost a little more to create but also produce better cash flow through higher rents, lower operating costs, lower vacancy rates, and lower financing costs, and all of these produce higher property values and financial returns both for them, nearby properties and town tax revenues,” he said.
Preka did not return a call for comment on the status of his project.
In May, the Zoning Commission acted to update its regulations to prevent future large-scale projects like the one from Preka.
The regulation change was an effort 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. It passed in a 4-1 vote despite opposition from the Planning Commission, which argued the town’s Plan of Conservation and Development encourages the kind of mixed-use developments the zoning change prohibits.
The mixed-use model is promoted in planning circles as a way to mix retail, restaurants, offices and multifamily housing to create livable, walkable communities.
The regulation change was also precipitated by the construction of a 24,000-square-foot building on Main Street called the Norton that features a dozen luxury condominiums and several upscale retailers. It’s a product of Mystic-based K Blake and Company.
The Norton includes the popular Sift Bake Shop, which with other locations in Mystic and Watch Hill lends an upscale cache to Niantic. But the building has been bemoaned as a behemoth and a monstrosity by those who say it’s out of scale with its surroundings.
Eighteen-year resident Robert VanCour in a public meeting this year described The Norton as “a large, yellow three-story behemoth that fits in that neighborhood like an impacted wisdom tooth.”
Pivo argued the building would be less imposing if it was built farther from the street so it didn’t loom over neighbors and those on the sidewalk. There are also architectural details that can be incorporated to make buildings more attractive, he said.
Eric Goodman, developer of the Norton with business partner Kody Blake, said he would have liked to set the building farther from the road and incorporate more New England-inspired elements, like the mansard roof used on another project from K Blake and Company in Mystic.
But he was hamstrung from making changes to the site plan approved for the property in 2013 by a previous owner, he said. The approval would have expired in January of this year if the team didn’t get the project built first.
Making changes to the site plan would have triggered a whole new approval process, Goodman said: “And that wasn’t something we were willing to undertake, partially due to costs and timeframes too.”
Plus, he wasn’t sure the project would be approved if amended.
Mulholland confirmed parking requirements would not have allowed the building to be set farther from the street.
Goodman expressed frustration with the reaction around town.
“The community is tough because you have a lot of people that do not want subdivisions. They don't want to see farms and wooded areas chopped down. And I agree with that,” he said.
But resistance to projects in downtown areas as well left him wondering what residents actually do want.
“I think there’s sometimes too much growth, but I don’t think 12 units is too much growth,” he said.
He argued the employment boom spurred in the area by aggressive hiring at Electric Boat and more people working from home is evidence of the need for more housing.
He said the mixed-use concept spurs business while also accommodating residents in smaller units that don’t generally attract families with children. That means the town’s education budget, which represents the bulk of everyone’s tax bills, won’t increase because of the development.
He said none of the households in The Norton or his Mystic building include school-aged children.
“If you’re going to create new housing, mixed use projects are the best for the town,” he said.
Over at Main Street Park overlooking the water this week, Carol Marelli was hanging up hand-painted buoys on artificial Christmas trees as part of the Buoys By the Bay fundraiser for the Niantic Main Street group and The East Lyme Public Trust Foundation.
Looking back on more than 70 years as a resident, Marelli acknowledged a lot of changes in town. But she described it as a gradual evolution dictated by residents who are willing to “stand up and object” when they see things happening too fast.
“Every town’s going to grow, and it’s growing at a nice pace,” she said.
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