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For some, Seaside State Park not yet a lost battle

Waterford — Helen Post Curry, the great-granddaughter of the designer of the main hospital building at the former Seaside Regional Center, is continuing a Quixotic effort to keep developers' hands off what is now Seaside State Park.

Curry, also the founder of Friends of Seaside State Park, advocates for doubling down on Seaside's designation as a state park by improving it.

"I don't want to see any development on that piece of land. If you look at what's going on in the world and understand the importance of coastal property, if you look at inevitable climate change and sea rise, that's the wrong place to develop," she said. "Once you understand the development is wrong, then we can talk about having Seaside as a passive park open to everybody. We can work toward creating a botanic garden, a natural habitat for animals, pollinator pathways, walking paths, ways to preserve the coastal habitat. Such a tiny percentage of the Connecticut coastline is public."

It's been about three decades since Seaside, a former center for the developmentally disabled, was vacated. Since then, the state has attempted to attract developers to convert the property's historical buildings into a resort, apartments, condominiums and the like.

Cass Gilbert, an American architect best known for the Woolworth Building in New York City and the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C., designed the main hospital building on Seaside's property and an employee building. The state has failed to maintain the structures over time, and they continue to deteriorate.

A bill introduced by state Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, requires the state Department of Economic and Community Development "to develop and issue a request for proposals to develop or dispose of the former Seaside Sanatorium facility in the town of Waterford and to preserve the adjacent area for a park with public access."

It likely won't be called before the end of the legislative session on June 9, and Formica won't push the bill before the session's end.

Curry calls the bill "terrible."

Her quest began as a way to save her great-grandfather's work, but she's come to understand the concerns of neighbors in Waterford, who comprise the Friends of Seaside group, as well as the intricacies of Connecticut's coastline. She and the Friends of Seaside have a beautification plan for the property.

Former Gov. Dannel P. Malloy designated Seaside a state park in 2014 after Waterford's Planning & Zoning Commission denied an application from a private developer. Years of research and public outreach ensued. The state issued a request for proposals in 2018 seeking a private partner that could restore the facility's buildings to create a luxury hotel and add waterfront enhancements. The state did not find a proper suitor, and Seaside has remained a state park open to the public for recreational activities.

The nurses' residence at Seaside is the building Curry will fight hardest to save. She floated the idea of a small commercial operation in the building, such as an education center, a little cafe, a bed and breakfast component and other thoughts.

"The big building is much more problematic, and it's not in its original form anyway because it's been added to," she said. "I would like to preserve the building for posterity in some fashion. If it isn't able to be maintained as a working building, then I would like at least to be able to save the footprint and have it be even an open pavilion or a sunken garden. There are lots of ways you can preserve the place the building occupied. I'm realistic about the fact that saving that building is extremely expensive and problematic. I'd love to save the building if there was any way to do it."

Waterford First Selectman Rob Brule said he was in favor of developing the building, perhaps into a limited number of condos. He, Curry, Formica, state Rep. Kathleen McCarty and other local stakeholders held a meeting this year following the introduction of Formica's bill, which Brule supported. He lobbied for "responsible development" that would save the buildings, keep the majority of the park open to the public and get at least some revenue for the town from the property. Brule was surprised to learn Curry was at least tacitly on board with demolishing one of the buildings.

"We should do all we can to preserve these two historic buildings," Brule said. "When she said 'I don't mind knocking it down,' it made me compromising a little bit easier."

Brule has continued his longtime lobbying to get the governor's office and state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection to pay attention to Seaside, though he admits to fatigue with the issue. He notes that Waterford police patrol the area, and the town helps out with paving, snowplowing, garbage and utilities.

"I'm effectively responsible for 35 acres and what's going on at that property, where there's holes cut in fences and people living in the buildings," Brule said. "You've got people trespassing on Waterford's residents' property to access the property and to leave the property. You have no security down there. There's very little staffing going on, there's very little oversight. I do not want to see the buildings continue to disintegrate because of inaction. We have to do something, and it's not OK to put up a chain link fence around every building or put boards on windows. That's not an answer."

Brule said he's spoken with Lamont about Seaside in the past. He understands, though, that the Waterford property is not a priority for the state as it focuses on sweeping legislation such as the budget and recreational cannabis.

The governor's office did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

DEEP spokesperson Will Healey said Seaside "is an incredibly important asset for the state of Connecticut and DEEP is committed to continuing to improve the park for the many people who enjoy outdoor recreation at this iconic location." He said DEEP would not comment further on the bill due to the ongoing legislative session.

Though the Seaside bill will not advance this year, Brule applauded Formica for introducing it.

"In the committee, there were concerns that neighbors still had over the development and how we're going to fix up the buildings. Are they going to tear them down?" Brule said. "There was a lot of what ifs and a lot of speculation on how DEEP was going to handle the buildings on the property, and there's been very little conversation with Commissioner (Katie) Dykes and myself, with anybody. I respect the fact that Senator Formica introduced the bill because he got everybody talking about Seaside again."

Formica said he's introduced some iteration of a Seaside bill seven times, and this session's version made it the farthest, as it was voted out of committee. As long as he remains a senator, he said, he will continue to introduce such bills until something gets done.

"The bill enabled me to get people at the table. I asked the first selectman to convene a meeting of the players, and we had a number of people on a speaker phone talking about where we wanted to be, what the next steps were, and the fact that sitting still for another decade is not something I'm interested in pursuing," he said, adding that those same players plan on meeting in person on the Seaside property in the near future.

Formica's ideal version of Seaside aligns with Brule's, as he supports low-impact development. He agreed with Curry, too, that the larger of the two buildings can be destroyed, which he says is "a testament to the neglect over the last 20 years," so long as there is some monument to its existence.

He admitted that this session has been crowded, but Formica said he thinks Lamont does view Seaside as a priority.

"We benefit as a government by upgrading this piece of property that we as the state of Connecticut own," he said. "This is a unique situation that has property that needs to be dealt with, buildings that need to be dealt with, before they fall on somebody's head."

s.spinella@theday.com

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