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Boathouse park committee OKs plan to demolish buildings without state approval

The Mystic River Boathouse Park Implementation Committee on Monday endorsed a master plan that includes demolishing two National Register of Historic Places buildings on the site, voting to send the plan on to the Stonington Planning & Zoning Commission, despite an ongoing state review that could stop the demolitions.

A representative of the state Historic Preservation Office, along with a delegation from the Department of Energy & Environmental Protection, are planning a site visit Wednesday to begin an assessment of the historical buildings and a review of town planning for environmental remediation.

And yet the park committee, after being told of the site visit and pending review, voted unanimously Monday to send to the Planning & Zoning Commission a master plan that envisions demolishing the buildings and replacing them with a new building of undetermined design.

The plan will leave a blank space for the new building, Town Director of Planning Jason Vincent said. Mike O'Neill, director of rowing for Friends of Stonington Crew, which has raised more than $400,000 toward a $2.5 million boathouse building, said during Monday's meeting that the organization might start with building a concrete pad and a crude inexpensive structure in the blank space, if it hasn't raised enough for a new building.

I may be prejudiced, because I think the existing buildings should be saved, restored and reused, but it seems shocking that the town, which let a year go by from the time it was supposed to file the paperwork to allow the historic preservation office to begin its review, would charge on with a plan for demolition before the state has even had a chance to look at what is being proposed.

It seems especially confrontational, suggesting you plan not to listen to ideas and recommendations from the historic preservation office, given that the parent agency of the office, the Department of Economic and Community Development, actually financed the $200,000 master plan work, a brownfield assessment grant that included money for both site planning and an analysis of the pollution on the site. The preservation office is supposed to help the town look at alternatives to demolition.

So the town took the money, ignored the requirement to ask the state to begin a historical assessment, and then, having spent it on a master plan that never even examined keeping the buildings, rushed it all on to get planning & zoning approval.

The other big elephant in the room is that much of the money from the $200,000 grant will have been wasted if the state insists the buildings be saved. Vincent admitted in a public hearing on the project last week that there is no backup plan if the buildings must be saved.

This is planning, Stonington style.

I was especially disappointed by two yea votes Monday, one from Stonington Democratic Town Chairman Scott Bates, a deputy secretary of the state, who should have better respect for state processes, and from Stephen White, president of Mystic Seaport Museum.

What a shame that the director of a locally supported history museum, which is surrounded by and owns significant property inside the Rossie Velvet Mill Historic District, including the mill itself, would not at least wait to hear from the state's architectural historian before voting to send on for zoning approval a plan that calls for demolishing two buildings — replacing one with a parking lot — that contribute to the value of the district.

Both Vincent and Chad Frost of Kent + Frost, the Mystic landscape architects hired to do the master plan, have said in public meetings they don't know whether the residence was ever part of the mill property.

I spent less than 10 minutes in Town Hall and found the deed in which the mill company sold the house property to a gentleman named Walter Lovelace in 1938. You can see clearly from pictures in the collection of White's own museum, the way the coal waste deposits built up over the years, changing the topography all around the house on the park property.

How could anyone think that the property used by the mill for a coal dump was not owned by and part of the mill property?

Google "Coast Guard boathouse images" and you will see that the existing utility building on the park site, apparently the terminus for a tunnel, still in place, that was used to shuttle coal and coal waste under the road, bears a remarkable resemblance to many coastal boathouses, with their hip roofs, built by the Coast Guard over the years.

The building already is being used by Stonington High School rowers. It has a traditional design that the public has clamored for in a new boathouse. The existing residence certainly could be modified to accommodate the space for rowing machines the teams need.

If the existing buildings would be used, the group probably already is close to the total money it would need to raise. And the town would be spared an ugly econo-barn that is being suggested as a temporary measure that may or may not ever be resolved.

This is the opinion of David Collins.


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