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Seaside developer alters plans, seeks zoning to match

By Stephen Chupaska

Publication: The Day

Published June 11. 2011 4:00AM
Monday hearing to look at proposed changes to Steiner's original outline

Waterford - For neighbors of the former Seaside Regional Center, who have for 15 years followed its transition from a state-owned facility to private hands, two points seemed definite: Any new development would be restricted to people over 55, and an effort would be made to preserve the Beaux Arts buildings on the site.

But over that time the real estate market for age-restricted housing has decreased, and condition of the eight Cass Gilbert-designed buildings has deteriorated.

Farmington-based developer Mark Steiner, who has an $8 million agreement with the state to buy the former sanitarium and home for the mentally disabled, wants a zoning change to eliminate the age requirement and add new language that would permit the demolition of one or more historic structures on the 32-acre campus.

Residents will have chance to comment at a public hearing of the Planning and Zoning Commission 7 p.m. Monday at Town Hall.

"We've had quite the roller-coaster ride," said Kim Bruno, of Shore Road.

In April, the legislature's Government Administration and Elections Committee approved the sale of the property to Steiner, who first inquired about the property in 1997.

The state agreed to sell the property to Steiner in 2006, but in 2007 a legislative panel voted to keep the property.

An investigation then by The Day uncovered emails from former Gov. M. Jodi Rell's chief of staff Lisa Moody suggesting that the property be preserved as a "legacy item" for the governor.

In May 2010, the Department of Public Works announced it would sell Seaside to Steiner.

In May 2011, Steiner received approval for the purchase from the attorney general.

Foreclosure proceedings

In the meantime Steiner has been part of two court cases involving his finances.

In December 2010, Farmington Bank initiated foreclosure proceedings in Hartford Superior Court against Steiner and his wife, Linda Steiner, on their home in Avon. The matter is still in court.

In May, Steiner prevailed in a lawsuit claiming that he owed back interest on a loan dating to 1982. The case is now under appeal.

Reached Thursday, Steiner declined to comment on any matter not related to the zone change application.

For now, the proposed zone changes don't sit well with people who live near Seaside, which has sat virtually dormant since the state closed the center in 1996.

According to Debby Green, who lives on Woodsea Place, dispensing with the 55-plus requirement could strain the public schools and alter the density of the neighborhood.

"That has always been part (of the regulations)," Green said. The current zoning regulations have been in effect since the late 1990s, according to town director of planning Tom Wagner.

Proponents of age-restricted housing say it is a method to expand the real estate tax base without overburdening the public schools with more students.

In an interview Tuesday, Steiner said the market for age restricted housing has shifted since the requirement was put in during the late 1990s, and there have been "a number of failures."

"Most people who buy age-restricted are in their 70s," Steiner said. "It's not a reliable market."

Steiner said the price of the condos would start at about $500,000. "If you are going to spend $500,000 and you have kids, you are more likely to buy a house with a yard," Steiner said.

Steiner plans to market the development to people who live in metropolitan New York for second homes and to empty-nesters. His vision includes concierge service and dining areas for events.

Although the property is zoned for 130 units, Steiner said no final decision has been made on how many will be built.

Steiner is also seeking authority to demolish some of the buildings on the Seaside campus if they cannot be preserved.

"We're not necessarily going to demolish them, but we are seeking a provision in case it is not feasible to keep them," Steiner said. Steiner said he would hire an engineer qualified to evaluate historic structures.

According to Steiner the structures, which are on the National Register of Historic Places, have fallen into disrepair since negotiations with the state failed.

A spokesman for the National Trust for Historic Preservation said that as long as there is not any federal money involved in the project, any preservation or reuse of the building is at the discretion of the owner.

Town historian and Town Clerk Robert Nye said citizens can apply for 30-day and 60-day delays or file for an injunction to halt any demolition.

Steiner said any replacement structures would replicate the buildings and feature Beaux Arts flourishes.

As a point of comparison, Steiner mentioned the new Ocean House Hotel in Watch Hill, R.I., which incorporated designs from the old hotel into the modern structure.

Neighbors around the Seaside property said they expect a large turnout at the hearing Monday, and some are requesting that both the town and Steiner work more closely with them.

Kathy Jacques said the neighbors were more involved "in the beginning" but are now feeling left out of any decisions.

"It hasn't been inclusive," Jacques said.

Steiner said Tuesday he plans to hold small workshops with neighbors about his plans for the site.

s.chupaska@theday.com

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