State House approves Thames River Heritage Park bill

Hartford — The House of Representatives passed a bill Friday that aims to help create the 1980s-era Thames River Heritage Park by removing bureaucratic roadblocks.

The bill passage coincides with the groundbreaking ceremony for the National Coast Guard Museum, which would serve as the centerpiece of the park.

Under the legislation, the commissioner of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection would no longer have to get approval from an advisory board made up of local officials or municipal legislative bodies when naming or altering a heritage park.

Though legislation regarding the establishment of heritage parks exists, there are currently no heritage parks in Connecticut, DEEP spokesman Dennis Schain said.

The bill applies to any potential heritage park across the state, but originated from advocates in New London and Groton, who wanted a designated park with water taxis and touch-screen kiosks that bring together historic sites, restaurants and retail for tourists on both sides of the river. Other sites that would be prominent components of Thames River park include the Submarine Force Museum, Fort Trumbull State Park and Fort Griswold Battlefield State Park.

One of the reasons the initiative has moved slowly is because the initial plans called for a brick-and-mortar visitors center that would have been costly. The bill doesn’t include any funding, but the hope is that there would be many public-private partnerships that would make the shoreline comparable to the Baltimore Harbor.

“What I would imagine here is similar to what has happened to the Baltimore Harbor — and that happening in New London and happening in Norwalk and happening in Greenwich,” said state Rep. Tom O’Dea, R-New Canaan. “Where you have a vibrant downtown harbor atmosphere, that would encourage tourism to these areas.”

State Reps. Timothy Bowles, D-Preston, Elissa Wright, D-Groton, and Ted Moukawsher, D-Groton, said they supported the bill. The legislation would streamline the process of setting up a heritage park and provide a more flexible approach, Wright said.

“I think this could be the beginning of some very exciting things happening,” Bowles said, “not only in Connecticut but also in the eastern Connecticut corridor.”

Only one legislator said he was concerned about giving up local control. “I do like this concept of a heritage park, but being a believer in local control, I don’t know if I would want to put that much faith in the commissioner for a venue that is really going to be in a local municipality,” said state Rep. Fred Camillo, R-Old Greenwich.

Under current law, DEEP is required to work with the state’s Department of Economic and Community Development and must have public hearings concerning a proposed park name or boundary change at least 30 days prior to taking any action.

The House passed the bill 134-12 Friday, while the Senate passed the bill unanimously last month. The bill now goes to the governor for his signature.

j.somers@theday.com

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