November 13, 2018

Op-Ed: SECoast Questions Proposed HOPE Development in Old Lyme

Organization Stresses Support of Affordable Housing

This Op-Ed was written by Gregory Stroud, Executive Director, SECoast

This photograph shows a representation of Hope Partnership’s ‘model’ Ferry Road development six years after completion.  Photo by Gregory Stroud.

No doubt by now, most of you have heard of the Hope Partnership housing development planned for 16 Neck Road. It’s a subdivided property tucked in beside the northbound I-95 exit 70 into Old Lyme, a wooded 12.5 acre lot with a steep entrance road, and a long stretch of deep-water access to the Long Island Sound. The property once assessed for $1.2 million, was purchased by a local developer on December 31, 2015 for a relative song—$455,500.

As things stand today, our expectation is that the purchaser, Graybill Properties, will keep and develop the back two lots for private houses, with river views and water access, and will sell the front two lots facing Neck Road for development as “affordable housing,” all told perhaps 37 or 41 two- three- and four-bedroom units, twelve buildings, and 113 parking spaces.

The development falls under a state law, commonly known as 8-30g, which doesn’t exactly give for-profit and non-profit developers carte blanche, but it does place a heavy burden of proof on local government to stop them, if a town fails to meet a very narrowly-tailored threshold of 10 percent deed-restricted affordable housing stock. Old Lyme currently stands at 1.56 percent, and by this method of counting, it’s not at all clear that the town can or will ever meet or sustain the minimum threshold of affordability.

To be sure, affordable housing has a checkered 30-year history in Connecticut, with often wealthy enclaves successfully gaming the system to shirk their statutory responsibilities, and sometimes unscrupulous developers gaming the system to build luxury apartment complexes, and harvest tax advantages, wherever profitable. In our particular case, we feel confident in saying that neither is the case, but that does not mean our current debate has not been colored on various sides by these broader frictions and frustrations.

Proponents of the project have at times avoided a serious discussion of the project by out-of-hand dismissing legitimate local concerns as NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard)—a form of name-calling rather than logical argument. Opponents of the project have frequently suggested darker motives for the development, without evidence. Town leaders have pitched the project as an effective defense against less scrupulous developers, despite the obvious truth that this project will not nearly allow Old Lyme to meet its near-impossible 10 percent obligation. There has no doubt been anger and ugliness, and more than a few transitory facts and figures in and around the project. We can do better.

Although we have significant and still unaddressed questions concerning the genesis of this project, the methods for choosing and advancing this project, how it fits into broader unstated plans of profit, funding, and development for Old Lyme, nevertheless we are confident that the two primary organizations behind it—Old-Saybrook-based Hope Partnership, and their statewide partner The Women’s Institute—are motived not by profit, but by a genuine, if perhaps overriding, philanthropic mission.

Nor does Old Lyme—despite its reputation among some as a haven of wealth and privilege—have a history of skirting the law or blocking affordable housing projects. In fact, in this case First Selectwoman Bonnie Reemsnyder and Selectwoman Mary Jo Nosal, have invited and actively encouraged the development of this project in Old Lyme. We have little doubt that many in Old Lyme will bend over backwards to help see this project to completion.

But now putting all that aside, we are left with two basic questions: Is this a ‘good’ project? And do our concerns about health, safety, or other legally reviewable matters, clearly outweigh a need for affordable housing?

To the first question, we say largely not. To the second question, we say that it remains unresolved. For this reason, while we have decided to remain neutral at present on this project—we will neither promote, nor actively endeavor to block it—it is our view that the project leaves such substantial details and questions unresolved that it would constitute an act of negligence for zoning, planning, wetlands, or other town commissions to give this project approval, or even conditional approval, without significant additional scrutiny and assurances.

To this end, we spent more than two hours on May 2 with board and staff members of Hope Partnership, and The Women’s Institute, which was followed by numerous hours reviewing evident and serious issues of pedestrian and traffic safety, fire code, environmental, and other concerns. We followed up with an additional nearly hour-long conversation with Kristin Anderson, the development manager for the project, as part of The Women’s Institute. We remain deeply, and sincerely troubled by the project, and the feasibility of addressing these concerns.

We leave our detailed criticism to later public comment, but that said, it is telling we think, that the bulk of assurances which we did receive, regarding the goodness, the compliance with fire code, and the traffic and pedestrian safety of the project, are premised on a series of troubling and doubtful assumptions as follows:

  • that some un-proposed and unfunded redevelopment of Rte. 156 and Halls Road may in the future allow for safe pedestrian access between the development and the nearby Halls Road Shopping District;
  • that the 2018 State Building and Fire Safety Codes would drop a mandate for sprinklers by a vote in the legislature on July 1;
  • that CTDOT will alter the traffic signs and the terminus of Exit 70 in a manner, and time, which will allow for safe vehicle access to the site.

To be frank, all that we are really sure of here, is that this project has sailed through a number of planning, zoning, and wetlands meetings, with the strong backing of elected local officials, an array of ephemeral facts and arguments, an ever-growing scope, and a heck of a lot of good intentions.

But for all the good intent, the stubborn present reality of this project remains an essentially regressive model of suburban tract housing, with no clear safe access on foot, by bicycle, school bus, or public transit, awash in blacktop, skirting requirements of septic within the watershed and at the mouth of the Connecticut River, exempted from requirements of open space for land which will later be developed, and by an Old Lyme Plan of Conservation and Development, which is two sentences from nonexistent.

This is a project, as currently drawn, which reaches toward a lower common denominator of fire code. If requirements for sprinklers are dropped, should we cheer? It’s a plan at present, which encourages children to play inside, and burdens struggling families with the necessity of two cars.

Of course, no project can meet every ideal measure, and many families happily live out their days without sidewalks and within suburban tract housing. Should we hold affordable housing to a higher standard? Aren’t affordability and good intentions, reason enough? It’s an argument more often we’ve seen used for hot dogs and hamburgers in school lunches.

The reality is that 16 Neck Road is not just a housing development, it’s the entrance to the town. 16 Neck Road is the first step, a driving force, a funding source and point of leverage for a much larger unspoken and questionably-coordinated redevelopment of Old Lyme. Are we in such a rush, that without any real detail, this is how we choose to begin? 

Believe me, the public hearing on May 14 isn’t just another hoop, it’s the moment when Hope Partnership and the Town of Old Lyme decide whether to pull the trigger.

We say, yes to affordable housing in Old Lyme, but only with a better affordable plan.

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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.

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