After many postponements, Theodore A Harris, agent for JAG Capital Drive, LLC, finally made his pitch to East Lyme's Zoning Commission for affordable housing at West Main Street/Capital Drive.
The presentation included a well-developed plan for sustainable and attractive affordable housing and a request that the commission change the zoning from light industrial to allow for the proposed development of 69 residential units on the site.
There were two things that everyone seemed to agree on at the East Lyme Zoning Commission's public hearing. First, East Lyme both wants and needs more affordable housing. Second, the site plan JAG Capital Drive presented was very well put together and the development itself is an attractive proposal.
Where people didn't see eye-to-eye was whether this was the right place to do it.
Location Is Key
The 24-acre property is located on Capital Drive and is accessible from Route 156, near Rocky Neck State Park. The site is wooded and contains a large amount of undevelopable wetlands but it's currently zoned for light industry. That makes it something of a rarity in East Lyme, where just one percent of the town is zoned for light industrial use.
The site's closest neighbors are a beauty salon supply distributor, an embalming supply company, and Birk Manufacturing—a metal refinishing company that makes printed circuit boards. All of these industries involve toxic and, in some cases, combustible chemicals. Eighteen-wheelers are constantly coming and going and Birk Manufacturing, which employs 86 people, has three shifts.
Even now, neighbors who live some distance away on Four Mile River Road complain about the bright lights in the parking lot and security lights that are on all night. The residential neighborhood that JAG proposes would be less than 50 feet away from all of that.
"No one is speaking against affordable housing," said the attorney representing Birk Manufacturing. "It's not the concept, it's the placement."
A couple of years ago, a chemical mishap at Birk Manufacturing resulted in the release of chlorine gas. Everyone had to be evacuated as hazmat teams, state police, and DEEP arrived on the scene.
Birk was commended for its efficient handling of the gas leak but, business owner Norman Birk said, "I sent two guys to hospital. Accidents happen. A six-foot fence is not going to do anything about a chlorine gas leak."
Even at the best of times, Birk said, "We have 80 cars in a day, 30 at night, and night lights. I don't want to hear complaints about it. I was there [first]. I did everything right."
The Proposed Development
JAG Development originally bought the 24-acre property on Capital Drive with the intention of finding commercial buyers. When that didn't happen, JAG turned its attention toward housing.
After a number of incarnations, the developer has come up with a plan for a mix of two- and three-bedroom units, with open floor-plans and front porches, connected by footpaths that lead to hiking trails and recreational facilities. Forty-seven of the units would be rented for whatever the market will bear, but the rest would be rented for less as affordable housing.
To encourage affordable housing, state law exempts such developments from zoning regulations. That gives developers more leeway to build in areas that might otherwise be off-limits to residential property. JAG's proposal calls for 30 percent of its development to be affordable housing. That's the minimum required by the state to qualify as an affordable housing development.
The town has a number of housing complexes located in or next to light industrial zones, including Seaspray (which is not far from Capital Drive) and 38 Hope Street in Niantic, (which is next to a lumber yard and freight trains), so there is some precedent in town for residential developments that are located in light industrial zones.
To Rezone or Not, That's the Question
The businesses currently located in the light industrial area that JAG wants to see rezoned oppose the change because there is already so little space allocated for light industry in East Lyme and they fear they'll lose what little they have if the zone changes.
"Industry is going to come back eventually," said Richard Beck, who owns the embalming supply company on Capital Drive. "To change the zone, I think, is a bad deal."
Following the public hearing, which was held two weeks ago, East Lyme's Zoning Commission decided to postpone taking any vote on the issue until tonight. The Commission is expected to take action on both the proposed zone change and the developer's request for approval of the site plan at this evening's meeting at East Lyme Town Hall.