Second bill raised to reconsider Seaside's fate
State legislators on the General Assembly’s Environment Committee heard opposition from DEEP officials and state park advocates to the second bill raised this session that would require lawmakers to reconsider the future of the former Seaside Regional Center in Waterford.
A letter from state Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, questioning the state’s plans to turn the grounds and dilapidated buildings at Seaside into a privately run resort triggered the proposal of two bills in two separate legislative committees in the past month.
One, the subject of a public hearing on March 5 in the joint Government Administration and Elections Committee, would require the sale of the property, which Gov. Dannel P. Malloy announced would become a state park in 2014.
On Friday the joint Environment Committee considered a second bill, which would put the responsibility for collecting information and determining Seaside’s future in the hands of four state and town officials.
The bill would require the head of DEEP to consult with the commissioner of Administrative Services, the secretary of the Office of Policy and Management and Waterford’s first selectman to “issue a request for information for uses” for Seaside, which has been the subject of deliberation at the state agency level for nearly three decades. The four officials would then, within 90 days of receiving responses to their request for information, determine the “highest and best use” for the property and issue their own request for proposals.
Formica, who identified himself as "the guy who’s raising all this ruckus about Seaside," defended his proposal as an effort to reconsider the best use of the property given DEEP’s estimated $10 million price tag for its renovation.
"Let’s look at this very closely and see exactly where we’re going," Formica said. "The opportunity to sell or get a request for information ... is an opportunity to compare (it to) what the DEEP plan is moving forward."
DEEP Commissioner Rob Klee and Susan Whalen, DEEP's Deputy Commissioner for environmental conservation, opened the public hearing on the bill by expressing their opposition to a new process that Klee said would "pull the rug" from under a yearslong effort by DEEP officials to collect public input and study the possibilities for the future of Seaside within the state parks system.
DEEP officials have been holding public hearings, hiring consultants and commissioning reports on the property since Malloy's surprise 2014 announcement that the state would take over and turn it into a park, halting the plans of a developer who had long expressed interest in building a five-star resort there.
“We’ve gone through a very extensive master plan process, with thousands of folks engaging in that,” Klee said.
Whalen told the committee that the state has spent a total of around $600,000 on various commissioned plans and evaluation of the sea wall and buildings at Seaside.
"We believe that the highest and best use that we have identified is consistent with this property as a state park," she said. “We really explored that through a public engagement process ... and we have a very clear vision and a very clear direction. This bill will insert a lot of uncertainty into the other process that we spent a lot of time building."
The bill would require the information-gathering process to include a provision preserving public access to the beach at Seaside, which has been open to the public in the years since Seaside was declared a state park but not maintained. It does not include any provision requiring the repair or preservation of Seaside’s buildings, which architecture experts and Connecticut conservationists want protected because they were designed as a tuberculosis sanitarium by renowned architect Cass Gilbert in the early 1930s.
The Environment Committee will meet Wednesday and will decide then whether to send the bill to the General Assembly for a vote.
A Gilbert descendant, Waterford’s town historian, state parks advocates and conservationists all urged the committee not to support the bill and not to send it to the legislature for a vote.
Helen Post Curry, who said Gilbert was her great-grandfather, called the bill an effort by Waterford First Selectman Daniel Steward to improperly insert himself into the DEEP plans to develop Seaside as a state park.
“It puts the fate of the park into a smoke-filled back room,” she said. “Its best use has already been determined (by DEEP).”
Steward has said that he has been skeptical of the state park plan since Malloy announced it in 2014 and supports reconsidering its sale, which he said would generate property taxes for Waterford and avoid state spending on the park.
Waterford Town Historian Robert Nye, the town's former longtime town clerk, repeated Post Curry's concerns about the process by which the bill appeared before the committee.
"I ask you not to abandon Seaside State Park," he said to the committee. "Allow the DEEP plan to move forward posthaste and unhindered."
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