Stonington reaches agreement with state on boathouse park plan

Stonington — The town announced Friday that it has reached an agreement with the State Historic Preservation Office to preserve a house on the Mystic River Boathouse Park property that is considered to be a contributing factor to the Rossie Velvet Mill Historic District.

The house will be moved 90 feet north along Route 27 and restored to historic standards. It will be connected, by a small glass structure that will contain a rowing trophy room, to the two-story boathouse, which now appears to resemble a traditional New England barn with a cupola in preliminary sketches.

The agreement, which the Mystic River Boathouse Park Implementation Committee approved Monday and which First Selectman Rob Simmons signed Thursday, removes a major hurdle for the development of the park.

The original pan for the park called for the demolition of the house and garage and construction of a boathouse whose modern design was intended to reflect the industrial heritage of the former Rossie Mill across the street. The mill now houses the Collections Research Center for Mystic Seaport Museum.

Residents roundly criticized the design of the boathouse, and the organization raising money to build the boathouse withdrew the design and has been working on a new one.

Meanwhile, state historic officials told the town it could not tear down the house and garage because they are contributing structures to the historic district. This effectively blocked the town’s original plan.

On Friday, Simmons said the town has no alternative other than to revise the project to preserve the house and reach a memorandum of agreement with SHPO, a process that took eight months and numerous revisions.

“It has not been an easy process,” said Simmons, who since 2015 has championed the idea of a public park with access to the Mystic River that could also host the Stonington High School crew team.

Simmons pointed out that SHPO is part of the state Department of Economic and Community Development and DECD has the funding the town needs to help pay for any cleanup of contamination on the site and development of the park.

Under the terms of the agreement with SHPO, the town must document the history of the house and garage with photos, site plans and text. It will be placed in the SHPO archives and made available to the Mystic River Historical Society.

The boathouse also must incorporate architectural features and be of a scale that is consistent with other buildings in the historic district. The agreement states SHPO already has agreed to the preliminary design.

Simmons said a public meeting will be held Saturday, Dec. 7, at a time and place to be determined, to unveil updated drawings of the new boathouse. The first floor of the boathouse will house rowing shells and the second floor will house ergometers and training facilities for the high school team. The glass connector will house the Hart Perry Trophy Room, while the renovated house will have bathrooms and changing areas on the first floor and coaches' offices upstairs.

The house, which now contains a sliding glass door and other modern features, must be rehabilitated within keeping with the U.S. Secretary of the Interior’s “Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties.”

The agreement also states that the town must design and install at least three interpretative panels that will convey the history of the site and/or the historic district. The panels already have been designed.

In a Thursday letter to Marena Wisniewski, the national register specialist and architectural historian with SHPO, Simmons wrote that the boathouse committee unanimously approved the memorandum of understanding. And while his term as first selectman and chairmanship of the boathouse committee will end Nov. 18, he wrote that he is confident that committee members “will continue to work in good faith with you, SHPO, and other state officials to bring this marvelous project to a happy conclusion.”

“We have a dream that with your help and support this long-neglected brownfield will be converted to a public use which guarantees access to the water for our award-winning High School crew as well as for the boating public. We also hope that the buildings and interpretative panels will reflect the historic character of the site and tell the exciting story of Mystic’s industrial past,” Simmons wrote.

In 2016, taxpayers approved $2.2 million in bonding to create the public park, while a private group of rowing supporters is raising money to construct the $2.5 million boathouse.

With the SHPO issue now solved, the town will need further approvals for the work, including from the Planning and Zoning Commission and the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, as the land the park sits on is contaminated with coal slag and arsenic and the house contains asbestos.

Simmons said the town has six environmental studies of the site and they do not show any major contamination problems. He said the materials are underground and the project will not require major excavation.

While he will not be involved in the project in an official capacity after next week, Simmons said he and his wife, Heidi, will remain involved in the construction of the boathouse.

j.wojtas@theday.com

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