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New London argues State Pier project will need local approvals

New London — The city has issued a challenge to the Connecticut Port Authority and crafted legal opposition to the proposed $157 million State Pier Redevelopment.

City Law Director Jeffrey Londregan, in a Sept. 2 letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, reiterated the city’s argument that the port authority must first amend a 20-year-old State Pier Municipal Development Plan before it can apply for a permit to work at the pier. The plan governs activities on the property.

The proposed work at State Pier, which includes filling in 7.4 acres of water between State Pier and the Central Vermont Pier, represents a major modification to the MDP, the city contends, and requires a months-long process of public hearings and local legislative approvals overseen by the city’s development arm, the Renaissance City Development Association.

It’s a contention that the port authority has dismissed, arguing the MDP is no longer applicable since the terms of the MDP have been met. But RCDA Executive Director Peter Davis said the MDP issue was first brought to the attention of the port authority in May 2019 and that he has yet to see a written legal opinion disputing that “the MDP remains in full force and effect for 30 years from the date it was ratified. Period. End of sentence.”

New London, Davis argues, has contended with obstacles thrown up by the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection for Fort Trumbull, which has a similar MDP in place.

“It’s an issue of equity. The RCDA doesn’t understand how we can be held to the terms of Fort Trumbull MDP and (the port authority) is not pondering the terms and conditions of the State Pier MDP,” Davis said. “Respectfully, we don’t agree with that.”

“The city is obviously trying to protect its interests and wondering why the CPA is held to a different standard,” Davis said.

Connecticut Port Authority Board of Directors Chairman David Kooris maintains that actions contemplated by the MDP at State Pier are completed. The city acquired parcels of land and transferred them to the Connecticut Department of Transportation, which completed redevelopment there. Fort Trumbull, by contrast, remains mostly undeveloped, Kooris said, and thus the MDP remains in effect there because conditions of that MDP have not yet been met.

The opposition from New London comes even as Mayor Michael Passero continues to argue that as the host city, New London deserves better financial compensation for a project on tax-exempt land. Meanwhile, negotiations on a host city agreement with State Pier development partners Orsted and Eversource have stalled.

The lack of response from the port authority to the MDP, Passero said, is “consistent with the way this agency has acted throughout this project, to completely shut the city out of discussions and ignore any issues we raise until we get to the critical point that jeopardizes the project.”

“This is a legitimate issue we’ve raised. It’s another symptom of the agency locking out a representative from the host city to participate in their plans,” Passero said. “You can’t blame the city if this is jeopardizing the project. They can’t just ignore it. It’s the law.”

The city’s letter was a response to a solicitation of public comments by the Army Corps of Engineers as it reviews the port authority's permit application to transform State Pier into a hub for the offshore wind industry. Construction is slated to begin in 2021 but the authority must first obtain permits from the Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection for aspects of the proposed work.

The comment period for the Army Corps application ran from Aug. 4 to Sept. 3, and numerous individuals and organizations submitted letters — a mix of support, opposition, questions, concerns and calls for a public hearing. The Day obtained copies of the letters through a Freedom of Information Act request.

The U.S. Coast Guard, for instance, has asked that the port authority conduct a Formal Navigation Safety Risk Assessment for the proposed project. The 473-foot-long and 184-foot-wide vessel, expected to be used in association with the work at the pier, would require 36.8% of the 500-foot channel as compared to the 19% required by vessels arriving at State Pier in 2019.

“I am concerned there may be increased risk of collision and subsequent damage to vessels in the waterway due to the reduction in available channel width …,” wrote Coast Guard Lt. Jennifer Sheehy, chief of the Coast Guard’s Waterways Management Division.

The Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments is among others that have has raised concerns over State Pier's inability to accommodate freight other than what the wind industry is bringing in.

There is also support. The Connecticut Business and Industry Association, a group representing thousands of small and large businesses, argues the improvements “will provide a long overdue and much needed boost not only to the Groton-New London community, but will help support the health and well-being of the entire economy of Connecticut and Southeastern New England for years to come,” wrote CBIA Vice President Eric Brown.

After the construction period and growth of the offshore wind industry, Brown writes, “Our state will have full ownership of a modernized port facility that can support numerous different cargoes and shipping opportunities.”

It is unclear when the Army Corps is expected to make a decision on the permit application.

Kooris said a legal opinion of the MDP from the port authority is forthcoming and thinks the city has a wrong interpretation of the MDP.

“The role of the MDP is to give a redevelopment agency the authority that they didn’t have … in this case the purpose of the MDP was for redevelopment. The activities the (MDP) governed are completed,” Kooris said.

Davis said while some work was completed, the city never did see the kind of economic benefits contemplated in the MDP, such as a promised multi-use cargo warehouse and associated jobs.

The MDP was adopted in 1999 to allow the city, through the New London Development Corp., to acquire 8.6 acres and dozens of homes in the area around the State Pier with state funds, enabling it to market the property for commercial use in association with State Pier. The NLDC later transferred the property to the state Department of Transportation, which expanded the footprint of the pier to about 30 acres. The property was recently transferred to the port authority.

The MDP project area is 125 acres and includes tidal waters at both State Pier and the adjacent Central Vermont Railroad Pier. The city argues that plan remains in effect until 2029.

The proposed work falls within the boundaries of the MDP, and the city contends some of what is proposed is “inconsistent with certain sections and provisions of the MDP.” Specifically, the city argues that the plan to fill in 7.4 acres between the two piers significantly changes the shoreline and triggers a review and possible series of approvals by the city before it can apply for a permit to the Army Corps.

“Clearly these elements of the proposed project are not only inconsistent with, but in direct violation of, the plain language of the MDP as adopted in 1999,” Londregan wrote. “The MDP was prepared for the RCDA and the City of New London, not for the CPA.”

g.smith@theday.com

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