Amateur hour with park-selling Sen. Formica

It's hard to imagine that a state senator could introduce a bill in the General Assembly without understanding the consequences of its passage, sort of like firing a gun into the dark, not knowing what you might hit.

But that's what Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, apparently did last week, as he now tells it, introducing, on the sly, S.B. No. 252 An Act Requiring The Sale of The Former Seaside Regional Center, a short piece of proposed legislation that, as the title suggests, orders "an expedited sale" of the property by the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

He introduced the bill, although his name doesn't appear on it as a sponsor.

This surprise proposal came to the attention of DEEP officials only late last week, leading them to scramble to react before a public hearing Monday.

Fortunately, word of this stealth attack on plans to develop the property as a state park, set in motion four years ago by Gov. Dannel Malloy, did not go unnoticed by the advocates of the ongoing park development.

By Monday's hearing, there was a firestorm of protest, from statewide environmental and park advocacy organizations, including the Connecticut Fund for the Environment, the Connecticut Forest and Park Association and Friends of Connecticut State Parks, as well as historic preservationists, like the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation, advocating to save the Seaside's Cass Gilbert architecture, a lynchpin of DEEP's plans to find a private developer to turn the former tuberculosis sanitarium into a park lodging.

DEEP is nearing the end of an exhaustive project using consultants to study and solicit public input on possible ways to develop the park, including studies of the environmental impact and a cost analysis of a developer's investment in the buildings that would be leased, an outcome that would produce revenue for the state and town.

DEEP officials say they have reached a regulatory milestone that will enable them to begin soliciting bids from developers interested in leasing and preserving the buildings.

I caught up with Formica before the start of Monday's hearing, and he told me that people had been misinterpreting the bill. He said he wants DEEP to seek bids for the sale of the park and also continue to look at leasing possibilities, and then decide which is the best.

He said the state then could consider whether potential purchasers would need to save the buildings or keep the property open to the public.

The problem with this response from the senator on Monday, as the sun began to shine on his legislation and the storm of protest grew, is that none of the things he now suggests are actually in the bill.

Indeed, he told me he is not sure, if the bill were to pass, just how the decision making by DEEP about what to do with the property would unfold and who the final decision maker would be.

And yet DEEP Deputy Commissioner Susan Whalen told me the bill, to her agency's reading, unequivocally calls for DEEP to get two market appraisals for the property and essentially sell it to the highest bidder, with no provisions for preserving the buildings or keeping the property open to the public.

The other red herring in Monday's hearing was Formica's suggestion, in his testimony, that money from the sale of the Seaside property, which once was used for housing people with developmental disabilities, would go to funding programs for that community.

Indeed, advocates for the disabled showed up Monday to testify for a sale, like stage dressing, even though there is nothing in Formica's bill that reserves the money from a sale for the disabled.

It seems to me that if the Republican senator from East Lyme, co-chairman of the Appropriations Committee, is that focused on providing assistance for programs for the disabled, he should find the means in the state budget to do that, not sell a park.

Don't use that community as a pawn.

The only numbers Formica used in his testimony Monday were off the top of his head, suggesting at one point DEEP has spent tens or maybe hundreds of thousands of dollars on the park development studies. Actually, senator, you can find out that number with a simple phone call.

I was critical of Malloy's action on Seaside all through his first term, following in the footsteps of both his Republican predecessors in dawdling in a failed sale agreement and not protecting the Cass Gilbert buildings.

But his decision to create a park, which seemed at the time it was made to be an endorsement of Betsy Ritter of Waterford, who then was running against Formica for the Senate seat he won, might turn out to be one of his better ones as governor.

You don't need to go far to see successful private/public park developments, like the enormously popular new Brooklyn Bridge Park in New York City, where the development of a hotel, restaurants and apartments in the park will provide a long-term revenue stream to maintain the public park facilities.

Malloy, unlike the Republican governors before him, who left the Seaside buildings to rot, is on track to preserve this treasure of national architecture and keep open to the public one of the most spectacular properties along the Connecticut shoreline.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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