DEEP rejects proposals for Waterford's Seaside State Park

Waterford — State officials recently ended a lengthy effort to find a private partner to redevelop the historic former Seaside Regional Center into a luxury hotel on state park property, saying a pair of proposals failed to meet the state's criteria to move forward.

In a news release Tuesday, the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection announced it had received two proposals from developers last August. The agency had planned to evaluate the submissions, hold a public meeting and pick a developer by last fall.

But DEEP on Tuesday said that after an evaluation and "the submission of additional information by both parties, DEEP determined that neither proposal sufficiently met the criteria spelled out in the RFP to proceed with an award."

DEEP said it received proposals from a New York City architect, Scott Henson, and Sonning LLC, led by Mark Steiner, who previously was contracted with the state to develop the property for almost 15 years. He requested the town make zoning changes three times, the last one rejected at a Planning and Zoning Commission meeting in 2014, just before former Gov. Dannel Malloy pulled the plug on the development and announced the creation of the state park.

A message left with Steiner was not immediately responded to and no one picked up at Henson's firm on Tuesday evening.

DEEP Deputy Commissioner Susan Whalen, in an email to The Day, said neither proposal was sufficiently responsive to the RFP's requirements on "financial feasibility, team qualifications and experience." The proposals "did not provide sufficient benefits to the state," she added. After the initial submissions in August, DEEP had requested additional information from both bidders seeking clarification on proposal elements "that were vague or insufficient for evaluation" on project financing and "team expertise to undertake such a project."

"Although we are disappointed that a development partner was not identified through this process, we remain committed to securing the best possible future for this state park," Whalen said in a statement.

DEEP's request for proposals was part of a yearslong effort by the Malloy administration to reimagine the abandoned buildings and grounds as a state park lodge on Long Island Sound. In 2014, Malloy suddenly proposed a state park and effectively ended Steiner's resort plans, which would have left the beach and grounds open to the public.

The RFP reflected a lengthy public comment process and DEEP's January 2018 decision to pursue a partnership with a private developer. The agency sought proposals that "offer amenities such as dining, meeting space, and a spa, and make the site an attractive destination that works in harmony with adjacent neighbors, the community, and nearby park properties."

The RFP also required the developers to commit to renovating four buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places designed by renowned architect Cass Gilbert in the early 1930s. The site served as a tuberculosis hospital before housing people with developmental disabilities from 1961 to 1996.

State Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, who last year pitched a bill to sell the property to help the state avoid repair and maintenance costs, said previous estimates to repair the dilapidated buildings approached $10 million, which he argued was likely insufficient. He added that estimates to repair the seawall were between $4 million and $5 million.

"Whatever it is, the costs just get worse. The deterioration and decline of the property continues, and you're well into two decades of neglect," Formica said in an interview Tuesday, adding that holding off on selecting a developer was the right approach. "We've got to figure out what's practical and possible and affordable and how do we get there. We want to make sure we've got a good solution for everybody."

Whalen said estimates for repairs to the exterior of the buildings are in the range of $10 million. Estimates are not yet available, she said, for site remediation, which is handled by the Department of Administrative Services.

Seaside enthusiasts and more than 100 residents filed written testimony last year to push lawmakers on the Government Administration and Elections Committee to let plans for a public-private partnership play out at Seaside.

Eileen Grant, co-president of the Friends of Connecticut State Parks, said at the time that a Seaside sale "threatens every park. Shoreline state parks are in short supply. We don't need less of them, we need more of them."

Waterford First Selectman Dan Steward said he was "very disappointed" that the state "didn't find something."

"DEEP spent a lot of money on consultants, public hearings and trying to find out what to fit there," he said, describing the location as a pristine but challenging investment for developers who'd have to spend millions to repair historic buildings while leasing land from the state instead of owning it. "My opinion has always been there should be an outright sale of the property if they can't maintain it. The state has not done a good job of maintaining the property; they just don't have the personnel. Selfishly for the town, a sale would provide tax revenue from a private owner. But it's just a disappointing outcome that's been a long time coming."

DEEP said that, along with officials from the Department of Economic and Community Development and the Department of Administrative Services, it would "meet with local officials, developers and others to determine next steps."

The park, DEEP said, is "open as a place for passive recreation activities including walking, fishing and birdwatching." The buildings remain closed to the public.

b.kail@theday.com

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