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Objection filed with DEEP against downtown Coast Guard museum

It is kind of delicious for someone like me, who believes the stalled and impossibly expensive and impractical plans for a downtown New London Coast Guard museum need to be scrapped, to read a scathing criticism of the project by one of its partners.

Cross Sound Ferry eventually signed on to support the problematic waterfront museum site after then Gov. Dannel Malloy pledged in 2013 to provide $20 million to build a bridge across the railroad tracks connecting the downtown to the proposed museum as well as a new ferry terminal planned by Cross Sound.

The ferry company, it seems, hated the idea of the waterfront museum before it loved it.

And in its opening protest in 2012 of the downtown museum plans, Cross Sound Ferry, saying it was "adamantly opposed," cited a lot of good reasons why the project may violate Connecticut law preserving the waterfront for appropriate water-dependent uses.

That letter may be coming back to haunt the company, as Connecticut's prominent environmental gadfly, Robert Fromer, has included it in an objection to the project he has filed with the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

"The proposed museum project stymies any growth opportunities for transportation at that site forever," the ferry company owner and President John P. Wronowski wrote in a three-page letter to Malloy in January 2012.

"The proposed structure has the serious potential to harm existing ferry operations by obstructing navigation, access to and from the ferry terminals along with blocking the line of sight down the river for departing and returning ferries. There is also an issue with riparian rights," Wronowski wrote.

The design of the museum did eventually change so that it is no longer over the water, but that occurred long after Cross Sound signed on as a supporter.

"We believe, as we know you do, that waterborne transportation and shipbuilding and repair should be the primary purpose of New London's deep water port," the ferry president told the governor.

This is exactly the point being made by Fromer, who this month submitted extensive comments to DEEP on its review of an application by the museum association to build the large museum on a small flood-prone parcel between the railroad tracks and the river.

Fromer's letter of objection includes an explanation of the Coastal Management Act, which limits waterfront development to water-dependent uses, and quotes from the legislative debate rejecting a proposal to substitute "water-enhanced' for "water-dependent" when the act was passed in the 1970s.

"What word in water-dependent use of facility is DEEP unable, unwilling or incapable to understand," Fromer wrote in his objection.

He also elaborated with objections that the big glassy museum would degrade the natural features and vistas in that historic section of the riverfront.

"Bank Street buildings are the same buildings 19-century whalers saw when they sailed into port," he wrote. "The museum's features will block or degrade critical views and vistas; its impact would be an abomination of the historic district. It is a grotesque and hideous contribution to the district."

Fromer also wrote to Attorney General William Tong alleging that political pressure is being brought to bear on DEEP in regards to the museum application, suggesting there has been intervention by the Coast Guard commandant, Gov. Ned Lamont and U.S. Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy in the environmental review.

He said he also plans to complain to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which has oversight of DEEP, to ensure compliance with the coastal management law.

What the complaint doesn't address is the common sense I hear from most critics of the plans: Why, in a time of global warming, would you build such an expensive structure to house precious artifacts of Coast Guard history on a flood-prone site that old photos show was devastated in the Hurricane of 1938?

Fromer's complaint, with its extensive legal citations, reads like it could be the basis of a lawsuit against any DEEP approval of the museum plans.

When I asked DEEP about Fromer's complaint, I heard from Michael Grzywinski, senior environmental analyst, who said the department is preparing a response, which he called a "priority" within the department. No one at DEEP replied when I asked whether Fromer's claim of political interference is true.

If Fromer is right, and political pressure is indeed being brought by the governor, the head of the Coast Guard and two United States senators, I can see why a response to the environmentalist's serious complaint about the project is a priority at DEEP.

Maybe it's finally time for Connecticut's political officialdom to accept what potential donors, who have left fundraising for this ridiculous project dead in the water for years, have long understood: It's the wrong site for many reasons and a new one needs to be picked.

I think Fromer is maybe doing the politicians a favor and demonstrating a safe and fast route to the lifeboats.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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