Now it's Lamont's challenge to save Seaside history

The administration of Gov. Ned Lamont is trying to figure out what the heck to do with Seaside State Park, which is largely a park in name only, and whether a truly historic building on the site can be preserved.

To that end, some of Lamont’s top lieutenants — Chief of Staff Ryan Drajewicz, Department of Economic and Community Development Commissioner David Lehman and Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Deputy Commissioner Susan Whalen — toured the property Tuesday with Waterford First Selectman Daniel Steward.

“All I was there for was to give them a chance to see it and explain where we have been the last 20 years,” Steward said.

Max Reiss, the governor’s communications director, described the visit as a fact-finding mission, the start of a process that will eventually lead to a policy decision.

If the administration hopes to preserve at least portions of the former tuberculosis sanatorium, with its signature steeple, wide verandas and silo, it can’t take too long. Time, the elements and neglect are conspiring to destroy it.

“If you really want to keep it, you need to do something soon,” said Steward, a Republican. He is not seeking re-election in November.

In 2014, former Gov. Dannel P. Malloy made the surprise announcement that he was terminating the state contract with developer Mark Steiner to salvage the property. After years of back and forth with the town and state, Steiner appeared close to closing the deal on a viable plan to save the historic structures on the site, converting them for condo use, with construction of a small inn to provide the added revenues to make the numbers add up. As private property, it would have all been taxable by the town.

Adding to the credibility was the involvement of the management team from Ocean House in Watch Hill, who were interested in running the inn.

Under the plan, public access to the shoreline would have been retained.

Malloy said instead Seaside, which had been used to house people with developmental disabilities after its service as a sanatorium ended, would be converted to a state park. A shingle hanging from a post at the entrance designates it as such, but the buildings continue to deteriorate and there are no park facilities.

With no prior evaluation of whether the state park idea made sense, Malloy dumped the matter into the lap of the state’s environmental agency to try to figure things out. Its long review of options ended with a plan that sounded much like Steiner’s vision, except the state wanted to retain ownership. It sought proposals from developers to partner with the state and redevelop the former sanatorium as a 63-room luxury “lodge.”

DEEP received two proposals, one from Steiner, and in July confirmed neither met the criteria laid out by the state, falling short on financial feasibility and lacking in detail.

It was the state partnership plan that was not feasible, otherwise DEEP would have received additional and more credible proposals. Why would a developer want to invest the tens of millions of dollars necessary to restore the Tudor-style structure without the reward of full control and ownership? But that is what happens when you create a problem, as Malloy did, then try to backfill a solution.

Lamont, a Democrat, would have to swallow hard, but he should consider an idea floated by the Republican state senator who represents Waterford: Paul Formica of the 20th District. Last year Formica introduced legislation to sell the property, but contingent upon the buyer restoring as much as feasible the historic structure and with deed restrictions assuring public access to the shore for passive recreation.

Steiner, meanwhile, has long been fighting with the Connecticut Office of the Claims Commissioner for the right to sue the state for breach of contract. A decision is expected soon. If Steiner prevails, which he should, he may re-enter the picture, particularly if Lamont revisits going the private development route.

Finding a way to effectively utilize the beautiful Seaside property, and preserving its historic architecture, would be quite a victory for a governor who hasn’t had many. But past decisions make the job tougher. Sending a scout team to assess the situation is at least a first step.

Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.

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