Waterford selectmen to vote on seeking tax district at Seaside property

Waterford - The Board of Selectmen will vote tonight on whether they favor introducing a bill in the General Assembly that would create a special taxing district for the Seaside property.

The bill, as proposed, would create a district with authority to tax its residents for the purpose of paying off the cost of bonding infrastructure costs on the waterfront property that has awaited development since the 1990s.

Since 1999, Mark Steiner has dangled the idea of developing a 122-unit condominum complex at the state-owned former Seaside Sanitarium property but has never formally submitted plans for a permit to the town. The town has, however, granted several zoning changes to allow his proposals to move forward.

Existing law allows creation of special taxing districts but only after a district has residents who thus become its taxpayers and voters.

Some public officials said Monday the proposed legislation feels rushed and that there are too many questions for a snap decision.

"We're being asked to do something in a hurry again and we're not sure what the purpose is," First Selectman Daniel Steward said Monday. "There are questions that have to be answered. It's something that is difficult because it has not been done before and we don't know the ramifications because we don't have any of these (taxing districts). Other communities have these, but it's based on the developer being the owner, not the state."

"There's not much to be said at this point. Steiner hasn't come in and made a presentation and I don't have information, but there are questions I'd like to ask like how his project is going, what the health of his project is, if there's been a feasibility study on his proposal," Selectman Paul Suprin said. "I don't know what his current status is, nor do I know his financial situation. Information is what it's all about."

Steiner's attorney, Joseph Vitale, said in a letter to the town that Steiner proposed the special taxing district legislation because under current law Seaside doesn't qualify for such a district. No one lives at the decrepit property, and Seaside hasn't been transferred from the state to Steiner.

"Where are our obligations? Where does the town sit? Are we obligating ourselves to debt that he's going to incur? This would have to be a bill that would have to be a friendly amendment to someone else's bill. What's the rush to judgment here?" Steward said.

At the 5 p.m. meeting, residents will have the opportunity for public comment before the selectmen's vote.

If the selectmen vote in favor, there would also be another chance for comment if a bill is introduced.

Steiner has estimated infrastructure costs to the property that total $8.5 million, including more than $2 million to repair the seawall.

Vitale wrote to the town that while Steiner has identified several sources for financing for the "more conventional costs" none is willing to finance the infrastructure costs.

The legislation would enable Steiner to take out bonds for the 32-acre Seaside campus. What would happen to the taxing district if the development fails is unclear.

State Rep. Betsy Ritter, D-Waterford, said she doesn't know if the special taxing district is the way to go because she doesn't understand what all the ramifications are for the town.

"The piece of legislation they have presented to us was very confusing as to how this district would be created, what they could do and how it would be operated."

Chamber of Commerce of Eastern CT President Tony Sheridan said Monday that leaving the property to sit is an embarrassment. He said the town has lost out on $1.5 million to $2 million in tax revenue a year because the property is undeveloped.

"The problem with rushing it through is that the legislature is finished in three weeks. Give him the taxing district he asked for but put strings on it so that he cannot go forward until all the concerns that the town has are answered," he said.

"There are ways of doing this, but to wait another year until next session, my God. Do we want this property developed or not? I certainly want it done right and I don't want to hand this developer a gift. Preston, Fort Trumbull, Seaside. What's the common denominator? The state of Connecticut owns all three pieces. There is a desperate need for construction jobs. There is every good reason in the book for this to go forward."

Representative Town Meeting member Theodore Olynciw, a retired developer and builder, said he is in favor of a renovated Seaside facility. But having not seen any development plans or the type of residential proposal, he would be more inclined to wait, especially since the taxing district concept is foreign to the town.

"I think the only thing that makes sense down there is some type of housing, and I know some of the neighbors are dead set against any type of developments, but I think it could be a win-win for the town," he said.

Olynciw suggested a senior housing or 55-and-older housing development - which is what Steiner had proposed earlier - because it would not increase the burden on the school system, would increase the tax base and would keep Waterford's older or senior residents in town.

"It's been on the back burner for many years, and I don't like rushing through things either, but I think we should work toward development but probably not in this legislative session," he said. "It's a good time to build, a lot of our people need work, our construction personnel are abundant and interest rates are low. It would be a plus-plus for our small part of our southeastern Connecticut community because this would be a massive project."

In a letter to Steward from Ritter and state Sen. Andrea Stillman, D-Waterford, they said that with only three weeks left in the legislative session, they are not comfortable "rushing though legislation that deserves and needs serious consideration by the town."

They said the proposal contains "serious repercussions for the town."

Ritter said Monday that putting forth legislation for a special taxing district at Seaside would depend on what happens at the meeting tonight.

When asked whether there was a possibility for Steiner's proposal to make it to the General Assembly this legislative session, Ritter said, "That is what they are asking for, yes."

Ritter said she is concerned about the town losing tax revenue while the property remains in state hands, but that as far as she knows, the developer and the state are negotiating the purchase.

The existing purchasing agreement depends on whether Steiner gets local zoning, building and other approvals, said Jeffrey Beckham, spokesman for the state's Department of Administration Services.

j.hanckel@theday.com

Staff Writer Johanna Somers contributed to this story.

UBOX:

If you go:

What: Waterford Board of Selectmen meeting

Where: Waterford Town Hall

When: 5 p.m. Tuesday

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