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Seaside developer has waited years for his day in court

It's hard to know which of the four Connecticut governors who have allowed the magnificent Cass Gilbert buildings at Seaside in Waterford to sit empty and deteriorate gets the most blame for the state's inability to resolve what will happen to the sprawling tuberculosis sanatorium property on Long Island Sound.

Of course a lot of the blame has to go to the current office holder, Ned Lamont, who, unlike his predecessors, has made no public moves at all to resolve the matter.

You can certainly also blame successive legislatures that have also done nothing of consequence.

There is a new bill pending in this session of the General Assembly to start moving the state along again toward a sale of the property. The bill sets up some goals but pretty much kicks it all down the road, with general plans of developing new requests for proposals. There have been lots of those over the years.

Maybe even more troubling is the litigation, stalled by the state, in which developer Mark Steiner is seeking $20 million in damages because former Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy yanked his contract to develop Seaside on the eve of an election for a Democratic legislator who had been taking heat for Seaside plans.

Because of quirks dating back to English law, you can't sue the state until you first get permission, from the legislature or its designated authority on such matters, the state claims commissioner. The state must waive sovereign immunity to be sued.

Connecticut is really good at foiling anyone who tries to sue the state, and Steiner's ongoing attempt, which is now six years old, is a good example.

I don't know about you, but I wouldn't buy Seaside any more than I would buy a single-family house where the last buyer was suing over a failed deal. Talk about a cloud over the title.

Who knows how much longer it may be before Steiner and his lawyers to get a green light to proceed with a lawsuit and then how long the case might take to wind its way through the courts.

It's hard to assign blame as to why Steiner's case has become such a good example of the way Connecticut has made a mockery of justice, shutting down a citizen's right to bring a claim.

Certainly a lot of it falls with Claims Commissioner Christy Scott, appointed by Malloy in 2016 and recently reappointed by Lamont.

Republican Sen. Paul Formica of East Lyme, one of the few lawmakers who has tried to buck the Seaside deterioration tide and push the state to do something, told me he voted against Scott's reappointment in March because of what he called a 1,000-case backlog of claims. He was among two no votes and two abstentions in the Senate.

When I caught up with Scott this week, she acknowledged the 1,000 pending claims but said not all of them are old enough to constitute being part of a backlog.

She took a lot of the blame for the delay of the Seaside claim but directed some of the responsibility to the legislature's Judiciary Committee.

The Seaside case, she said, didn't arrive on her desk for a final decision, because of the various motions made by the parties, until March 2019. She told me in October 2019 that she expected she might rule in about a month.

She didn't rule, and she says now she sent it on to the legislature in January 2020 because her statutory time to rule had expired and it was up to lawmakers to either make their own decision or send it back to her for another year.

The pandemic then stalled all similar referrals in the Judiciary Committee for all of 2020, she said.

So there is now a Seaside bill pending before the Judiciary Committee that would give the claims commissioner more time.

I tried to get more information about the bill from committee members and staff but they were unable to provide any specifics and said they are overwhelmed by hundreds of unresolved claims.

I worry about what will ever happen to Seaside as the buildings sit abandoned for what looks like will be many more years.

But the clog of claims against the state is even more troubling, with the state denying access to justice to hundreds of people who believe they have a legitimate complaint against their government.

This is the opinion of David Collins.


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