Tables turn: New London has leverage over the port authority

Back at the turn of this century, when the New London Development Corporation began its acquisition of the Fort Trumbull neighborhood, an effort using eminent domain that ended up before the U.S. Supreme Court, the agency also was busy buying and leveling a forgotten 19th century neighborhood at State Pier.

Like with Fort Trumbull, the NLDC, now the Renaissance City Development Association, in cooperation with the state Department of Economic and Community Development, developed for the 125 acres surrounding State Pier what's known as a municipal development plan, or MDP, in accordance with state law. You may read the plan at bit.ly/NLPierPlan1999.

It turns out, I discovered this week, all of State Pier, including the 13 houses that eventually were acquired by NLDC and bulldozed, is still governed by that MDP, a plan that is substantially at odds with what has been devised secretly by the Connecticut Port Authority to fill in the seven acres between the two existing piers and use them almost exclusively for wind turbine assembly.

Modifying the MDP to allow an all-wind-assembly port facility likely would require the approval of the New London City Council — small changes would have to be approved by the RCDA — giving the city its first real leverage over the port authority and its heretofore secret planning for the redevelopment of the city's port.

Indeed, the city deserves a voice, since it has foregone the tax revenue from the 8.7 acres for the last 19 years.

My discovery of the MDP, based on a tip, took me on a search for the transfer of the property from the NLDC, which led me to some 2002 deed transfers, provided by the state Department of Transportation, in which the properties were sold for $1.

Those transfers in themselves would seem to violate the MDP, which called for the properties to be sold at market rate to private developers, who would have paid taxes on them. The MDP envisioned a large warehouse on the property, to be used in processing port cargo, as one possible development.

Since the properties were not supposed to be transferred to the state and become nontaxable in the first place, that would seem to be an argument for the city demanding back taxes.

They destroyed a neighborhood, under the guise of a legally concocted plan, then ignored the plan and did what they wanted with the land, leaving it vacant almost two decades.

But the most glaring conflict between the MDP and what the port authority is planning involves the authority's plan to more or less preclude traditional cargo and remake the piers without a rail link.

The lack of a rail link in proposals submitted for environmental approvals has drawn criticism from U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, who secured $8 million in federal money to rebuild the freight rail line down the Thames River for a connection at the pier.

The MDP, which uses the term multi-modal throughout its 290 pages, referring to a combination of rail, ships and highways in one facility, actually presents that as the overall reason for the plan.

"NLDC's mission in undertaking this project," the MDP begins, is to improve the efficiency of port operations at the State Pier by optimizing the multi-modal transportation linkage of water, rail and interstate highways, thus stimulating economic development in the area."

Cue up the New London City Council for a debate on changing that MDP to accommodate an all-wind-assembly pier with no rail linkage for the foreseeable future. I would urge a no vote.

Instead of patting Mayor Michael Passero on the head, Gov. Ned Lamont may need to come down and polish his shoes.

David Kooris, deputy DECD commissioner and interim chairman of the port authority, told me Thursday he is aware of the MDP and some modifications to it that might have to be made.

I ran into a bipartisan gaggle of state senators this week, touring the port facility in preparation for a hearing next week by the Transportation Committee, in part to look at the corruption and mismanagement that is dogging the port authority.

Being on the Transportation Committee, I hope they also will look at the ways in which catering to a rich foreign conglomerate, to give away exclusive use of the city's port, is damaging the multi-modal transportation model that has long been planned and which now looks more promising than ever, with the federal improvements to the rail line.

The negotiations with the wind developers have all been conducted secretly, and it appears Gov. Lamont is rushing to complete them, even with a port authority stunted by scandal.

I hope lawmakers will demand more transparency and public input and at least make the wind companies explain why they need exclusive use of the 125-acre MDP site, which seems plenty big enough to accommodate traditional cargo, rail links and wind turbine assembly.

There seems to be plenty of waterfront available to allow the wind developers to build whatever they need and leave the existing piers, one on the National Register of Historic Places, alone.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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