Bill before joint committee would force state to sell Seaside

A building at Seaside stands vacant on Jan. 29, 2009. (Tim Martin/The Day)
A building at Seaside stands vacant on Jan. 29, 2009. (Tim Martin/The Day)

A bill before a joint General Assembly committee would force the state to sell the site of the former Seaside Regional Center, a move that would reverse more than four years of movement toward Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's vision of the property as a state park and could prove a tempting way for legislators to alleviate the state's fiscal shortfall.

State Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, asked the Government Administration and Elections Committee, which oversees the purchase and sale of state property, to raise the bill and hold public hearings because he said the state cannot afford to own a privately run resort, or maintain another state park. Connecticut has 107 state parks.

"My question ... to the committee is going to be: Is the state in a position to take on a project like this, and does it make the most fiscal sense?" Formica said Thursday. He said it would be an opportunity to have another discussion on whether the state should be involved in renovating and owning an inn, or instead "let the private sector do that and develop jobs and a tax base."

The current legislative session is a short session, during which it is customary for legislators to ask committees to raise bills instead of sponsoring them individually. The committee will hold a public hearing on the bill, along with 19 others, on Monday.

Formica's proposal comes almost two months after the latest bureaucratic step in the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection process to develop the property into a fully functional state park.

DEEP officials have been holding  public hearings, hiring consultants and commissioning reports on the property since Malloy's surprise 2014 announcement that the state would take over the property and turn it into a park, halting the plans of a developer who had long expressed interest in building a five-star resort there.

Formica said he has spoken with the developer, Mark Steiner, whose lawsuit against the state accusing Malloy's decision of cutting short his development plans is pending in front of the Office of the Claims Commissioner.

The new bill doesn't specify to whom the state would sell Seaside. "It could be anybody, any developer," Formica said.

Steiner declined to comment on the bill Thursday.

Seaside has sat quiet and vacant, yet open to the public, in the two decades since the closing of the Seaside Regional Center, which housed people with developmental disabilities from 1961 to 1996. Before that it was a tuberculosis hospital, with buildings and grounds designed by the renowned architect Cass Gilbert in the early 1930s that architecture experts and local historians want preserved. Seaside is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Steiner's plan for a five-star resort, which was more than a decade in the making, included paying to restore the buildings and leaving the beach and grassy areas at Seaside open to the public. When Malloy's announcement came in 2014, promising a state park with simple public facilities like picnic tables, Steiner was in the process of appealing the Waterford Planning and Zoning Commission's rejection of his proposal to amend the town's zoning regulations to accommodate commercial development.

Since then, Formica said Thursday, DEEP officials have reimagined Malloy's picnic tables into a state-owned version of Steiner's resort while the state's finances have constricted further, making it less clear where the money will come from to pay for it.

"I just think things have changed in the four years since this started," he said.

The state's most recent decision, to develop a hotel at Seaside, follows years of deliberation over multiple options that included one proposal to leave the park as it is, with dilapidated buildings untouched, and others that would have led to their demolition. 

The hotel plan envisions Seaside's future as a partnership with a private developer who would renovate the historical Seaside buildings into a 63-room hotel with public access to the grounds, a scaled-back version of the plan that state officials put forward as their preferred option for the site in 2016.

DEEP presented its record of decision on the plan for the property to the state's Office of Policy Management on Jan. 9.

Formica said he also is motivated by a provision that would direct the proceeds, if Seaside is sold, into a fund to build housing for people with intellectual disabilities.

Advocates for people with disabilities watched Malloy's decision to keep Seaside in the state's hands with dismay, mourning the loss of an estimated $8 million that would have gone to the Department of Developmental Services for the construction of the houses.

DEEP officials said Thursday they knew nothing about Formica's proposal and remain fully committed to enacting Malloy's vision for Seaside as a state park.

"We are in the forever business," DEEP Deputy Commissioner Susan K. Whalen said Thursday. "We are the state park system — we're not interested, really, in divesting of property that belongs to everyone. I think the focus has been on, how do we best manage this property for public use and benefit."

News of Formica's bill raised alarm among state park advocates Thursday; Eric Hammerling, the executive director of the Connecticut Forest & Park Association, wrote a message to members of the association urging them to contact the Government Administration and Elections Committee and offer testimony against the bill.

"If this irreplaceable property were sold, it might provide a one-time infusion of cash to the General Fund, but citizens would lose the ability to enjoy this public asset forever," he wrote.

Waterford First Selectman Daniel Steward, who like Formica has expressed skepticism about the state park plan since Malloy announced it, said Thursday that he approved of the effort to change course.

"The state has the opportunity to make some serious revenue if they were to sell it," Steward said.


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