Port Authority has applied to demolish part of historic pier

The Connecticut Port Authority, in disarray, without an executive director and no final deal signed for the $93 million plan to build a wind turbine assembly platform in New London Harbor, already has submitted extensive permit applications for the project with the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The authority, which has pledged $35.5 million in borrowed state money toward the wind facility, has proposed an enormous construction project that would fill in seven acres of water between the two piers it controls in New London: State Pier and the Central Vermont Railroad Pier, a historic 1876 earth-filled granite masonry pier known for the railroad that built it.

The port authority discloses in its voluminous applications that the railroad pier was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2005, with a nomination that calls it a "significant resource" because it shows the important role rail-water interchange played in 19th century transportation history.

The 1,100-foot-long pier also is significant for its place in engineering history, a "large and relatively intact example" of 19th-century harbor facilities engineering, its construction being a significant feat at the time, using massive masonry walls under water.

"It can be said with confidence that this is the only large 19th century pier remaining in Connecticut," the 2005 nomination to the historic register said.

The pier's listing on the register appears to be just one more significant complication to the project, which still needs to be defined in further negotiations between the port authority, the pier operator, Gateway New London, and Bay State Wind, a partnership between utility Eversource and the international wind power conglomerate Orsted.

Connecticut law treats structures on the National Register as protected natural resources, and anyone can file a lawsuit to stop a proposed demolition. In such cases, a lawsuit often is brought by the attorney general on behalf of preservationists.

The attorney general, for instance, won a Superior Court ruling last year stopping city landlord William Cornish from tearing down a Bank Street building listed as a contributing resource to the entire downtown National Register district.

The Central Vermont Pier, listed individually on the register, would appear to have much more historic significance for New London than Cornish's building.

Because state money would be used for the project, the pier's listing on the National Register also triggers a review by the State Historic Preservation Office. A representative for the office said this past week that the staff person assigned to the application pertaining to the pier is on vacation until later this coming week.

David Kooris, vice chairman of the port authority and deputy commissioner of the state Department of Economic and Community Development, told me this past week, when he and other authority leaders still were refusing to acknowledge that the agency no longer has an executive director, that he couldn't comment on how the Central Vermont Pier could be preserved in the New London project.

"I don't have the design details to (explain) that," Kooris said.

Actually, because he is both deputy commissioner of the DECD, which manages the historic preservation office, as well as an officer of the applying agency, he should at the very least recuse himself. Indeed, there is such a major conflict, the issue should be reviewed by some outside preservation agency.

The impact to the historic pier, as outlined in the May 7 submissions to DEEP, would be significant, with one corner of the pier to be demolished. One side would be covered completely by fill and there would be a new cap placed on the other side, according the application.

The height of part of the historic pier would be raised.

They are essentially proposing, according to the applications, to bury it.

It appears to be part of the port authority's dysfunction that it would commit to a $794,790 contract to apply for permits for the project, an application process already underway, when the deal for the project being applied for is not done.

Kooris refused to say what issues separate the parties or characterize the talks. I suppose why turn to transparency now, when the whole thing was hatched behind closed doors.

I couldn't help but think, while reviewing plans to convert New London's deepwater cargo port to a wind turbine assembly field, that the utility and wind companies, which will charge us all above-market rates for the electricity they will generate, should pay for all this themselves.

If leaving the historic pier out of the project costs more money, so be it.

The applications state very clearly that New London is the only port where they can do this. For smart negotiators, which the state seems to lack, that's called leverage. Instead, we are chipping in $35.5 million.

This is a very bad deal for Connecticut, and those splashes you hear are the people who conceived but couldn't consummate it falling in its wake, either jumping or being pushed.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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