Stonington voters approve $2.2 million Mystic River Boathouse Park project

Stonington — The more than 400 voters who packed the seats in the high school auditorium at Tuesday’s town meeting overwhelmingly approved the $2.2 million Mystic River Boathouse Park project.

The large number of voters delayed the start of the meeting for 30 minutes as Town Clerk Cindy Ladwig and her staff checked their identification against lists of registered voters and taxpayers before handing them a yellow card to vote.

When voters were asked to hold up their cards to vote, just 15 people voted against the plan.

First Selectman Rob Simmons and other supporters called the proposal a wonderful opportunity for the town to acquire waterfront land along the Mystic River for a public park, improve public access to the water and the town’s quality of life while providing a home for the high school crew team.

“If we don’t buy this land, there won’t be another opportunity for the town to acquire land on the Mystic River,” crew coach Mike O’Neill told the crowd, who applauded his remarks. “If we don’t buy it, someone else will.”

If that occurs, he said, it would be developed for condominiums or a marina.

Mystic Seaport President Steve White told the crowd that the town’s identity is wrapped up in the Mystic River.

“We have a responsibility to create this park and give the crew team the permanent home it deserves," he said.

Resident Nick Kepple, whose three daughters rowed for the high school team and in college, said the team provides students who might otherwise not do so a chance to play a varsity sport.

“We have lost multiple opportunities to acquire waterfront property in the past, Quanaduck Cove and the airport property, and I hope we don’t lose this,” he said.

Resident Scott Bates, who chairs the Connecticut Port Authority, said he has been up and down the state coastline where he said public access to the water is diminishing. He said the park is an opportunity to preserve water access for the town.

Some residents were unhappy that the Board of Selectmen held a town meeting vote on the project instead of an all-day referendum.

Resident Tom Fiore said the $2.2 million is a serious expenditure of money and should have gone to a referendum. He said not having a referendum disenfranchised voters unable to attend the meeting.

Resident Ashley Gillece agreed, urging the town to hold a referendum and avoid any controversy.

Simmons has said the project had been well publicized over the past year and there has been little opposition, making the town meeting an appropriate forum for a vote.

The town meeting also avoided the $7,000 cost of a referendum.

The town charter now allows someone to force a referendum vote after a town meeting by submitting a petition with 200 signatures within 10 days of the vote.

Such a petition to overturn the town meeting vote at referendum can be submitted whether the plan is approved or rejected.

Plans call for transforming the 1.5-acre property, located at 123 Greenmanville Ave., just north of Mystic Seaport, into a public park where people can launch kayaks, rowing shells and paddleboards.

It also would be the home of the Stonington High School crew team, which attracts a large number of student athletes each year.

Plans call for purchasing the land, demolishing buildings, capping coal slag contamination and installing landscaping.

The project dramatically would alter the entrance into Mystic, providing sweeping water views where they currently don't exist.

The property is privately owned and blocked from view by fencing and a home.

While the town would pay for the creation of the park, the Friends of Stonington Crew would be responsible for raising money to construct the boathouse and dock.

The team has outgrown its quarters at Mystic Seaport and needs to find a new home.

Simmons has said that if the town bonds the cost over 20 years, it would cost the owner of a median-valued home — one with a $230,000 assessment — a total of $235, or $11.75 a year.

If approved, the park could be ready to open in early 2018.

Simmons has said that the selectmen will now appoint a committee that will design detailed plans for the park with input from residents and the state.

j.wojtas@theday.com

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