“We owe it to ourselves and to those who come after us to … meet the challenges of our own time. If we do not, we will have voted for decay“
On March 27, the Old Lyme Zoning Commission voted 3-2 in favor of the Halls Road Overlay District (HROD) proposal, with two alternate members casting the negative votes. Because the Planning Commission had previously given the proposal a “negative referral,” a vote of 4-1 was required for passage, and the measure failed.
The problems the HROD was designed to address still exist. We believe the proposal is a viable response to those challenges, and that its rejection was a set-back for Old Lyme.
The new overlay district would have created an alternative to the commercial-only C30-S zoning along Halls Road, while leaving that older zoning intact. The HROD was aimed at promoting the creation of a walkable, bike-able, mixed-use shopping street along Halls Road—a new town center for Old Lyme that took as its model Lyme Street in its centuries-long role as a living, mixed-use town center.
The HROD is a significant piece of zoning regulation. It takes some effort to understand how it works, and to comprehend the implications of its detailed requirements. Those of us who worked on it spent years talking with local residents, business owners, property owners, town officials, regional regulators, developers, and land use lawyers to create the document we presented to Planning and to Zoning. After hundreds of hours, we understood it well.
Planning took a few hours to consider it, and flatly refused to allow HRIC the opportunity to answer any of their questions. The Zoning Commission held two public hearings totaling a few hours, then held its final vote after two more hours of deliberation in which no new fact or evidence of any kind was allowed to be introduced, even by Commission members. From the comments in each body’s final deliberations, it is clear that several of the participants had only the vaguest understanding (and sometimes a total misunderstanding) of the document. This was not a reasonable way to arrive at a good decision on a measure of this importance to Old Lyme’s future.
HROD was an attempt to meet the changes now shaping our economy, and to secure our town’s main business district in that new environment. Failing to pass HROD does not make those changes go away. It just leaves us relying on 1950s approaches to 2030s conditions.
Without HROD, there will be no one to bid against those who see Halls Road as a truck stop. There have been three proposals for gas stations/convenience stores in the last couple of years, and no proposals to build anything else.
Without HROD, there will be no mixed-use, walkable town center where people can live, work, shop, and enjoy the sort of human contact the Internet can never provide.
Without HROD, smaller-scale housing—if it comes at all—will be spread over the few remaining open acres, dotted here and there, and we will lose the opportunity to create a vibrant, living, mixed-use neighborhood in the heart of our town.
Without HROD, our main shopping district will lose the support that a mixed-use neighborhood provides for retail—the pedestrian traffic and walk-in trade that makes such neighborhoods the one bright spot in retail investment.
Times are changing, as they always do. In the middle of the last century Old Lyme made radical zoning changes to meet the future they saw then. We owe it to ourselves and to those who come after us to do likewise and meet the challenges of our own time. If we do not, we will have voted for decay.
Howard Margules says
As a longtime member of the Hall Road Improvement Committee it certainly was a frustrating experience watching the overlay zoning application defeated by one vote in the Zoning Commission. It represented not only a significant loss of time and effort, but more importantly it represented a waste of taxpayer money, and a potential loss of future tax revenues the overlay district might have generated and a diminished chance to
influence the future development of Halls Road in a manner consistent with the wishes of most town residents.
But even more troubling was not having an opportunity to input to both Commissions during the most important phase of their deliberations. If given the opportunity, we could have addressed some of the last minute issues the Zoning Commissioners raised while answering questions that went unanswered or were answered incorrectly by themselves. Instead, we were only allowed to observe the Zoning Commission deliberations.
The Planning Commission did not even provide the HRIC with any opportunity to present and discuss the application. As an aside, in many municipalities Planning and Zoning are combined into one commission resulting in an integrated decision-making process while avoiding the dysfunction resulting from their separation. I am not sure a single commission would have changed the outcome, but given the synergy between planning and zoning issues, combining them makes sense.
Finally, we need to foster an environment where community and town leadership feel empowered to champion and shepherd issues without the typical political wrangling through the complicated town decision-making process. The decisions by Planning and Zoning were disappointing as well as very short-sighted. The residents of Old Lyme and the future of our town clearly deserved better!
Candace Fuchs says
Having served on the Economic Development Commission under Howard’s excellent leadership, I agree and would like to emphasize Howard’s closing point. Town leadership needs to lead: gaining consensus on Planning and Zoning and those commissioners need to dedicate themselves to educating themselves on the project so they are prepared to make informed votes.
Katy Klarnet says
The Zoning Commission has made a terrible decision in rejecting the Halls Road Overlay District (HROD) proposal. I am certain that it is supported by a majority of those residents who took advantage of the many opportunities provided by the HROD committee to examine and the plan, and consider its benefits to our community.
What reason can there be for Commission members to oppose a plan that has been meticulously crafted to meet the changes we are confronting in our town and our economic environment? In so doing, they have chosen to maintain a 1950s approach to 21st century conditions, retaining a commercial district that is a relic of a time when enthusiasm for the automobile and suburban life put greater distances between people and their town centers. Today, people are demanding mixed use because it provides convenience, flexibility, and a range of experiences within a smaller neighborhood.
Without a mixed-use, walkable town center where people can live, work and shop, what is left of our small and diminishing economic health as a community will die.
I personally know several people whose professional and personal contribution to this community is unique and highly valued but who have chosen to relocate because of their inability to find small-scale housing that is affordable and convenient for their young families.
Our main shopping district limps along without the support that a mixed-use neighborhood provides for retail. There is no pedestrian traffic and no walk-in trade, which is the one remaining attraction for retail investment.
A proponent has said, and it is not an over-statement: to fail in this is a vote for decay.
I urge the members of the Zoning Commission who voted against this proposal to more thoroughly familiarize themselves with the HROD proposal, which reflects years of patient study, careful attention to the needs of the community, and thoughtful revisions and adjustments to the plan in response to every conceivable concern expressed by every authority. The HROD Committee spent years talking to every community stakeholder to create the document they presented to Planning and to Zoning.
That work now presents the Commission with an opportunity to choose: between a walkable town center where people can live, work, shop, and enjoy participation in a neighborhood and a community, or a Route 1 extension allowing drivers to speed quickly though and out of town, bordered by half-empty parking lots and decaying 1950’s strip-malls where there have been no proposals to build anything other than gas stations and convenience stores for years. I urge them to make the right choice.
Faye Richardson says
My husband and I have followed the Halls Road Improvement Committee’s work for several years. We never missed a chance to stop at the Town Hall to look at the beautifully constructed models and carefully drawn maps of what a new livable, walkable town center might look like. We, along with everyone in Old Lyme, were able to make an informal vote on what we liked or didn’t like. We’ve been encouraged to weigh in on options that might benefit or detract from the small town feel we all love. How different the process followed by our Planning and Zoning Commissions. How disappointing that when the deciding vote was to be taken, despite endless opportunities, one member of the Zoning Commission hadn’t had time to prepare so stayed home, and one of the no-voting alternates said that he didn’t understand “what we are trying to do here.” I’m embarrassed for our town and commend the Halls Road Improvement Committee for not giving up.
Mary Guitar says
I grew up in Old Lyme, when the A&P and the hardware store and the drugstore were still on Lyme Street. . I remember the powerful feeling of being able to ride my bike to school, and walk down the sidewalk to so many places. I was lucky to have had this experience growing up and I hope that future generations of children can have this also — on Halls Road –because of what the Halls Road Improvement Committee is trying to create. We need a town center that is not just a parking lot. We need to bring back to Old Lyme an area where there is a small town feel, where people can live and walk or bike to hardware stores and grocery stories without contending with high speed traffic and few sidewalks.
After all the work and time and energy that the HRIC has put into the plans for the overlay district, it is not too much to ask the Zoning Committee to work further with the HRIC on the plan. There is so much to gain by continuing the conversation, and too much to lose by letting a not fully informed vote eliminate the options that are proposed for making this part of town a lively, easily accessible, slower paced town center.
Sometimes it is easier not to make a change,but now is the time to take a small and well-planned leap of faith. We can make our town better, with vision and work. Let’s do it!