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Gov. Lamont suggests some movement on Seaside

During his appearance at a chamber of commerce breakfast in Norwich on Tuesday, Gov. Ned Lamont expressed interest in returning to a public-private partnership model to save portions of Seaside Regional Center’s historic architecture, place part of the property on the tax rolls, while preserving public access to the shoreline.

Lamont’s response to an audience question about the long-abandoned state property in Waterford was conceptual — more thinking out loud than a plan of action — but it at least showed the issue of what to do with Seaside has the administration’s attention to some extent.

That did not appear to be the case when Lamont last addressed the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut during an April event in New London. When asked then about Seaside, Lamont came across as uninformed.

To correct that situation, and as previously reported, Lamont in September assigned a group of his top officials to visit Seaside and present him with facts and options.

During his appearance Tuesday at the Holiday Inn, Lamont relayed what his Chief of Staff Ryan Drajewicz told him about the property: “I just think it is an incredible waste of assets.”

Got that right.

Lamont expressed his interest in returning to the approach the state was using when, in 2014, former Gov. Dannel P. Malloy abruptly announced the state was terminating a contract with potential developer Mark Steiner. Malloy then declared the property a state park. Aside from hanging a sign, the state has done little to make it one.

For years Steiner had pursued his plan of renovating the historic buildings on the property — originally developed as a sanatorium for tuberculosis victims and later converted to house people with developmental disabilities — for use as high-end condo units.

After numerous starts and stops, Steiner appeared close to moving forward. Plans were amended to construct a small luxury inn to provide the additional revenue stream necessary to make the plan work.

Then Malloy intervened.

Whether it is Steiner or another developer, this approach makes the most sense. It uses private investment — potentially helped by government grants and or tax breaks — to save and renovate the historic structures, particularly the main building with its signature steeple, silo and wide veranda. If privately developed, the property becomes taxable by the host town of Waterford. Deed covenants could assure the shoreline area remains open to the public.

“I want to see that developed in a way that has public access to the beach … and we have a reasonable, responsible development,” Lamont said Tuesday.

“We own too much stuff in the state of Connecticut. It limits opportunity and I’d like to give entrepreneurs a little more freedom to run (with ideas), and I think Seaside is one of those opportunities,” the governor said.

A plan was developed by the state after Malloy’s decision to make it a park. But it restricted bidders to doing things the state’s way, meaning converting the sanatorium into a 63-room luxury lodge, with Connecticut retaining ownership as landlord. The request for proposals received two offers, including one from Steiner, and neither was judged as meeting the criteria set by the state.

On Tuesday Lamont discussed a new model, which is really the old, better model.

“We’re thinking about another RFP that gives interested parties more flexibility in terms of the best idea for that property,” he said.

But no final decision has been made on how or when to proceed. A good assignment for newly elected Waterford First Selectman Robert J. Brule would be to work with state Sen. Paul Formica, whose 20th District includes the town, to urge the Lamont administration to move as quickly as possible from concept to plan. Those buildings are only getting worse.

Yes, Lamont is a Democrat and Brule and Formica Republicans, but this should not be a partisan issue.

Past decisions make Lamont’s task more difficult. Challenges would include converting what is now officially a state park into something else and dealing with Steiner’s legal case. The developer’s request to sue the state for breach of conflict by Malloy has been pending with the claims commissioner for several years. Decide, commissioner.

In the meantime, we urge the governor to make some solid decisions on Seaside before the next time he stops by the area for breakfast.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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