June 6, 2020

Op-Ed: Old Lyme Urgently Needs New Historic Survey; Current One Dates Back to 70s Leaving Town Vulnerable to High-Speed Rail and Other State, Federal Projects

11/06 UPDATE: We note that an item on tomorrow’s regular Historic District Commission agenda is “FRA Plan Update.”  The meeting is scheduled to start at 9 a.m. in the Old Lyme Town Hall.

Editor’s Note: The author of this op-ed, Gregory Stroud, is the Executive Director of  SECoast, the non-profit dedicated to organizing and educating the public to protect the Southeastern Connecticut and the Lower Connecticut River Valley.

Sometime, perhaps three or four years ago, when the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) first began plotting potential routes for a high-speed rail bypass across southeastern Connecticut, they would have consulted existing state and federal historic surveys to assess the impacts, and adjust the routes accordingly.

Surveys provide the government with a dispassionate, nuts-and-bolts, accounting and evaluation of a community’s worth. The government conducts all kinds of surveys, surveys of mineral resources, timber resources, and yes, even historic resources. And just as a town out in Iowa would be foolish to neglect its survey of farmland — lest the government decides to build an incinerator in Dubuque, or the Mississippi tops its banks in Keokuk — a small town of extraordinary historic worth, like Old Lyme, would be foolish to neglect its historic survey.

A historic survey matters not just for high-speed rail, but because it will inform every state and federal infrastructure project heading our way: the inevitable reworking of the existing rail corridor, the widening of I-95, the routing of new utilities, and the building of new cellphone towers. In fact, just two weeks ago the Connecticut Department of Transportation began revamping its 2004 study for I-95 through Old Lyme.

Over the next 25 years, Old Lyme faces a veritable multi-billion-dollar wave of infrastructure projects, forcing the state and federal government to make any number of difficult decisions. In simple terms, it’s a competition for limited routes and limited dollars. Unfortunately for Old Lyme, we entered this competition four or so years ago with a historic survey that was shamefully out of date. Think 40 years out of date — hip-huggers, bell-bottoms. Our baseline historic survey dates to the early 1970s. You can imagine, a lot has changed in terms of method and standards over the last four decades, leaving Old Lyme undervalued for state and federal planning.

We will never know whether an updated survey might have persuaded the FRA to draw its purple line elsewhere. There is no point in grousing about the past. But as every other town and region along the Northeast Corridor prepares for the competition, Old Lyme can’t wait around and hope for better.

So, what’s the cost? Nothing. Zero. Zip. The State Historic Preservation Office can fully fund the cost of a survey up to $30,000 — that should be plenty. And for whatever reason, if Old Lyme prefers all the bells and whistles, the town can apply for an additional $15,000 of federal funding. That would require a 50 percent match, but some or all of this could be covered by a grant from the Connecticut Trust.

I’m not whistling in the dark. Some time ago, I asked Daniel Mackay, the executive director of our statewide partner at the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation, “on a scale of one to ten, how important is an up-to-date historic resource survey?” “An eleven,” he replied. And if you’ve ever met him, you’ll know that Mackay is not prone to hysteria or exaggeration. This past weekend, at a conference in New Haven, I polled half-a-dozen experts on the topic. Everyone from the State Historic Preservation Office to academics agreed, without hedging or hesitation, that an updated survey was “commonsense,” that it would be “crazy” not to do it. And not just the preservationists, in my conversations with lawyers, they similarly agree.

I first raised the issue with town government on February 1. Since that time, we have raised the issue over a dozen times in writing, in meetings, and phone calls. Luckily, there is a rolling deadline. It’s still not too late.



  1. Ron Breault says

    Thanks again for your work on this matter.

    What is the town’s position on getting an updated historic resource survey?

  2. Thanks for this Op-Ed, Greg. My earliest communications with the town last winter strongly encouraged best practice preparedness through undertaking an updated historic resource survey. Worth noting, for whatever reason, that when FRA’s consultant Parsons Brinkerhoff did their first assessment of historic resources in OL, the Florence Griswold House was not identified as a National Historic Landmark.

    What should the survey area be?

    We know the proposed route via aerial crossing. We can conjecture a logical route for the rumored and never-committed-to tunnel. And we can presume that IF the FRA wants to avoid the route of a proposed new bridge slicing through Lyme Academy’s property and structures and remains committed to a coastal bypass, they would cross the Connecticut River adjacent to the current route and then move north into the I-95 corridor somewhere east of Lyme Street.

    As such (and with a likely widening of I-95 coming in the foreseeable future), I would suggest an ideal survey boundary area 1 mile north of the length of I-95 to the coast, and from the Connecticut River to the border of East Lyme. This survey would cover the potential impact zone and area of related effects for both the above projects.

    What type of survey?

    I would encourage the town to undertake a survey to determine National Register-eligibility. A determination of eligibility would qualify historic resources for legal protections under the state and federal planning/permitting scenarios that Greg Stroud describes above. Full listing on the National Register is NOT required to secure this legal recognition, nor would the survey itself accomplish that. If there was public support for new National Register districts or individual listings, that could be undertaken separately (and at separate cost), but that’s not the goal.

    The ultimate goal is to demonstrate to FRA, CONNDOT and other agencies that Old Lyme is a densely historic community. They should know that empirically, they should know that anecdotally, and that knowledge should have dissuaded them from their proposed route for high speed rail. Under the circumstances, it would be good for those parties to know quantitatively just what’s at risk from poor and uninformed planning in one of New England’s most historically intact coastal communities.

  3. Susan McCall says

    a high speed rail thru Old Lyme,a densely populated region,is ridiculous.The Acela was an absurd idea for exactly the same reason.Too many stops inhibit high speed.The existing railroad should be fixed for local traffic and new track laid thru less densely pop.areas.stopping only at Washington station,Penn.station,Trenton Sta.Penn.Sta.NYC,Hartford,Providence and finally Boston.Rerouting and fewer stops would make hi speed travel more feasible.The FRA should try to make this workable instead of a joke like the supposedly high speed ACELA

  4. Update: I spoke with the Old Lyme Historic District Commission this morning. We had a friendly, productive discussion, and the board voted unanimously to recommend that the Board of Selectmen, at their next meeting in two weeks, initiate a new historic survey. An important step, and we very much appreciate the support of the HDC on this critical issue!

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