Seaside will become a state park

Waterford — Two decades, three requests for zoning changes and a handful of lawsuits since the Seaside Regional Center for the developmentally disabled was vacated, state officials have decided upon a new fate for the state-owned parcel once destined for private development.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy announced Tuesday that the state has terminated its contract to sell Seaside to developer Mark Steiner and will instead make the parcel a state park.

The announcement about Seaside comes days after Steiner appealed the Waterford Planning and Zoning Commission’s rejection of his recent proposal to amend the zoning regulations of the property in order to allow for commercial development, including an inn. He said he wanted to build a five-star resort.

Steiner has been contracted on and off as the state’s preferred developer on the property for roughly 15 years, with his latest contract initiated in 2010. He has successfully changed the zoning regulations of the property twice and until recently restricted his plans to a luxury housing development.

“We’ve given this developer more than enough time to make his plans come to fruition,” Malloy said before a podium stationed several yards from Long Island Sound, near the main hospital building of the 32-acre property located off Shore Road.

State officials said Seaside would be the first state park added to the state’s shoreline in 50 years. Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Commissioner Rob Klee, who also atended the event, counted Bluff Point in Groton, added in 1963, as the most recent addition. Fort Trumbull State Park in New London, which was added more recently, does not count as a shoreline park because it is on the Thames River, DEEP spokesman Dennis Schain later said.

The park would likely contain simple public facilities such as a simple picnicking shelter with tables, according to the governor. Details such as whether swimming would be permitted on the property and the costs of repairing the seawall along the shoreline portion of the parcel are still being ironed out, according to Klee.

DEEP plans to hold public hearings in Waterford to involve residents and town officials in planning of the park.

Malloy’s announcement sparked cheers among neighbors of Seaside who crowded around the governor’s tent in the drizzling rain. Many abutting neighbors of the property have challenged Steiner’s plans for development for more than a decade.

Edward Lamoureux, who lives in Ridgewood Park, repeatedly referred to the event as “historic,” and Tuesday as a “victory day.”

“It’s the people’s property, the people’s property,” he said.

Waterford Planning and Zoning Commission Chairman Gwen Hughes said that while she voted in favor of Steiner’s recent zoning proposal on the grounds that a small inn would be acceptable, she much preferred a state park.

Fate of historic buildings

Neighbors and some town officials shared a sense of having won a long-fought battle, but questions remain about the future of the property’s historic buildings.

Architect Cass Gilbert, best known for his designing of landmarks such as the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C., designed the main hospital building and an employee building that remain on site. The state has failed to maintain the buildings over time.

Seaside is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Klee said that if restoring the buildings is deemed infeasible, his department may decide to keep only parts of buildings, such as certain spires, standing so as to convey the spirit of the place.

Legal ramifications also loom. Waterford Town Attorney Robert Avena said after the governor’s announcement Tuesday that the town still had to determine how to handle Steiner’s Sept. 26 appeal of the Planning and Zoning Commission’s denial of his zoning amendments.

The commission voted 3-2 in favor of Steiner’s proposal earlier this month. But four votes in favor were needed to approve the changes due to the success of a petition Seaside neighbors filed in opposition to the changes.

Steiner’s appeal, filed in New London Superior Court, states that the denial was “illegal, arbitrary, an abuse of Commission’s discretion and not supported by substantial evidence” on grounds that Planning and Zoning Commission member Dana Award, who voted in opposition to the amendments, was required by law to recuse himself due to a conflict of interest.

Award is an abutting neighbor of Seaside and, according to the appeal, his wife was named as a plaintiff in an appeal against earlier zoning changes Steiner requested and which the commission granted in 2003.

Malloy said at the event Tuesday that he was aware of the appeal, adding, “but we’re full steam ahead at this point.”

‘It came with no warning’

Steiner was not present at the afternoon event and was informed of the changes by the Department of Administrative Services via email Tuesday morning.

The email, also sent as a letter via overnight mail, states that his firm, Seaside in Waterford LLC, is in default on its contract with the state to purchase the land due to “failing to receive and/or diligently pursue necessary Land Use Approvals.”

Steiner referred questions to his attorney, Lewis Wise. Wise called the state’s decision “inexplicable” and said he and Steiner plan to ask the state to reconsider its decision. Steiner will sue the state for damages if the state moves forward, Wise said.

“Needless to say, my client is quite angry about the state’s reaction. It came with no warning whatsoever,” Wise said.

Malloy said during a question and answer period after the event that he had been “working up” to turning Seaside into a park “for a while” and emphasized that he had not been governor when any of the contracts with Steiner were initiated. He said that when the Waterford Planning and Zoning Commission turned down Steiner’s latest amendments, “I felt it was time to act.”

“I’m trying to right what I think was a wrong,” he said.

State Rep. Betsy Ritter, D-Waterford, said she believed an amendment she and state Sen. Andrea Stillman, D-Waterford, proposed earlier this year spurred greater discussion at the state level. The amendment, tacked on to three bills, according to Ritter, would have set a Jan. 1, 2015, deadline for DAS to sell Seaside. Setting the deadline while the state held a contract with Steiner would have been illegal, DAS spokesman Jeffrey Beckham said at the time.

A decision for the state to keep the land may seem like déjà vu for those who have watched the Seaside situation develop. In 2007, then-Gov. M. Jodi Rell took the property off the market, declaring that she thought it should remain in state hands indefinitely. She put the property back on the market in 2010 and Steiner again signed a contract as preferred developer.

Stillman said Malloy’s announcement differed from Rell’s in that Malloy has specific plans for the property.

Save the Sound, a program of Connecticut Fund for the Environment, sent out a press release applauding Tuesday’s announcement. The release noted that Seaside would become the state’s 108th state park. The state park system is celebrating its 100th year.

t.townsend@theday.com

Twitter: @ConnecticuTess

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