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Candidates for Waterford have questions about Seaside park plan

Waterford - Candidates seeking to represent the town in the General Assembly say they are unsure to what extent they would support whatever capital projects the state may propose for the former Seaside Regional Center for the developmentally disabled.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy announced last month that the state had terminated its contract to sell the state-owned property to developer Mark Steiner and would instead make the 32-acre parcel located off Shore Road a state park.

Bonding the upgrades needed to make the park appropriate for public use will require legislative approval, according to Department of Energy and Environmental Protection spokesman Dennis Schain. He said declaring the property a state park does not require a vote in the legislature.

Republican Paul Formica, 20th District state Senate candidate, and candidates for the 38th District state representative seat Democrat Marc Balestracci and Republican Kathleen McCarty have said that they are wary of the costs the state might face to renovate or demolish the historic buildings on the property.

"I can't say that I would just be automatically in favor of funding a state park," said McCarty.

"We'd have to see how much it would cost," said Formica. He added that his vote would depend on if the buildings would be torn down or restored and, if restored, if they would be used.

"Are they making the public beach like Rocky Neck, for example, where people can use the water, or are they making it just a walking area like Harkness?" he said, noting that Harkness Memorial State Park is next to Seaside.

Balestracci said he would not support state funding for restoration of the buildings if it meant pulling funding away from other state programs. McCarty said restoration should be seriously considered if new studies of the structural integrity of the buildings deem it feasible.

Both 38th District candidates said they would be interested in supporting a private-public partnership whereby some development occurs on the property. Balestracci said he would support development as long as it were not commercial, and that he believes a portion of the property could be made a state park and another portion privately developed.

Democratic Rep. Betsy Ritter, whom Malloy credited along with Sen. Andrea Stillman in his decision to create the new state park, said she would prioritize maintaining open space at the park "to the maximum extent possible" when it came time to approve funds for capital projects on the site.

Ritter, who is running against Formica for the state Senate, cited what the governor has referred to as a "passive recreation area," which he has described as including open space and an area with picnic tables under a roofed structure.

She said "it's a little hard to make a definite statement" about how she would approach capital projects on the site until the state completes a study on options for how to turn the property into a state park.

The governor has asked that the report be completed by January.

Joining Ritter in full support of converting Seaside into a state park is Bill Collins, Green Party candidate for the 38th District.

"Ideally, I would like to see the buildings preserved, and that would cost quite a bit of money," said Collins.

Formica said the state was a long way from making decisions about how to develop Seaside into a state park, given pending legal issues between the town and Farmington-based developer Mark Steiner.

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 changed the zoning regulations of the property twice and until recently restricted his plans to a luxury housing development.

Steiner filed an appeal against the Waterford Planning and Zoning Commission's rejection of a set of zoning amendments he had proposed for the property in September, days before Malloy announced Seaside would become a state park.

Steiner's lawyer sent the state a letter after Malloy's announcement, asking the state to reconsider and threatening legal action should the state not resurrect its contract with the developer.

Malloy's announcement, while setting off a flurry of celebration among abutting neighbors who have long fought to stave off Steiner's development of the property, has upset others.

Last week, Waterford First Selectman Daniel Steward called the announcement a "political foray." The day he made the statement, he had been seen discussing Seaside with Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Foley. Steward said he had been providing Foley with background on the history of town and state involvement in Seaside.

The office of Sen. Len Fasano, R-North Haven, sent out a press release Friday saying Malloy had acted in contradiction with a plan for economic development he developed in 2010, before he was governor.

"Senator Fasano says Governor Malloy completely disregarded his promise to work with the community to create economic opportunities at Seaside when he announced his plan to turn Seaside into a state park, thereby terminating a contract with a local developer and failing to include First Selectman Dan Steward, a Republican, in this decision," the statement read.

Steward said Fasano contacted him a few days after Malloy made the announcement and that he provided the senator with the same background he provided Foley. He said he told Fasano that the Waterford's Planning and Zoning Commission had adhered to state requirements in its hearings on proposed amendments to zoning of the Seaside parcel.

"Originally, the purpose of this whole process was for the state to divest itself of surplus property," Steward said of the state's treatment of the property since it abandoned the facility for developmentally disabled patients on site in the 1990s.

The 38th House district represents Waterford and Montville. The 20th Senate district comprises Bozrah, East Lyme, Montville, New London, Old Lyme, Old Saybrook, Salem and Waterford.

t.townsend@theday.com

Twitter: @ConnecticuTess

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