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New London - Two members of the group created to preserve the 18-acre Riverside Park said Monday they have been told the city might have to sell the park to address its budget crisis.
Kathleen Mitchell and Ronna Stuller, both members of the Riverside Park Conservancy, said Allyn de Vars, who led the mayor's transition team, reached out to them Friday, the same day the mayor announced the city was facing a "budget crisis."
"He told me they had to sell the park and said the mayor's office wanted me to back off and give him some breathing room so he could continue negotiations with the Coast Guard,'' said Mitchell, a founding member of the conservancy.
"I told them when pigs fly,'' she added.
DeVars, an unpaid political consultant to the mayor, said he was acting as a private citizen and was not representing the mayor's office.
"My concern with Kathleen ... I wanted to talk to her before she started charging forward,'' DeVars said. "I know how well connected she is and how passionate she is and I didn't want to see a full charge before she had all the facts."
At a press conference Friday night, Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio announced the city is facing a $12 million budget shortfall. A special City Council meeting to discuss "the potential purchase and sale of real estate by the City of New London" was canceled due to concerns that it would violate Freedom of Information laws. Finizio said at the press conference that the city would consider selling city property to help close the budget gap, but would not comment on Riverside Park.
Friends of Riverside Park was formed last year to save the park from being sold to the Coast Guard Academy. A deal to sell about nine acres of the park to the academy for $2.9 million failed in a November referendum. This month the "friends" formed the Riverside Park Conservancy.
DeVars said Friday that he had heard there was a budget crisis looming but didn't know the details. He said he asked Mitchell, "Would we rather see the taxes go up and be awfully high or are we willing to look at the city's facilities?"
Stuller said she wasn't sure if DeVars called her because she is a member of the conservancy or "a fairly prominent individual around town." She said she is still "trying to figure out the purpose of him reaching out to me.''
But, she added, there is "absolutely no support (from the conservancy) to sell the park.''
During his mayoral campaign Finizio said he opposed the sale of the park. After the election he said he was prepared to enter into a new dialogue with the Coast Guard and felt there were other land-use options available for the academy to expand.
Zak Leavy, executive assistant to the mayor, released the following statement Monday: "Mr. DeVars is a private citizen who speaks only for himself and does not represent the views of the administration. The administrations position on Riverside Park remains unchanged and would refer you to the Mayor's earlier statements with the Coast Guard regarding their expansion. The Mayor intends no further comment on this subject."
Finizio met with Academy Superintendent Rear Adm. Sandra L. Stosz earlier this month and said their respective staffs would research potential sites for academy expansion.
Sandra Chalk, executive director of New London Landmarks, said she doesn't know if the park might be for sale but said Monday it is critical to re-energizing the East New London neighborhood.
"What will the city do without the park?'' she asked. "What will pull that neighborhood together? The park is the saving grace."