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State and local leaders support private development of Seaside property

The former Seaside Sanitarium property, which has operated as a state park since 2014, is once again being looked at for a possible public-private partnership.

State Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, has introduced a bill that requires the state Department of Economic and Community Development "to develop and issue a request for proposals to develop or dispose of the former Seaside Sanatorium facility in the town of Waterford and to preserve the adjacent area for a park with public access."

During a virtual public hearing conducted Tuesday by the legislature's Commerce Committee, Formica said the legislation is meant to continue the yearslong public conversation about Seaside. In written testimony, he said to walk the "beautiful" 30-plus acre property along Long Island Sound is "to see the discouraging state of disrepair that has been allowed to happen these past 25 years of inaction under state control."

"By deed two things are protected in any transfer of this property: 1. Public access is guaranteed 2. The proceeds of any sale must be used for creating residential alternatives for persons with developmental disabilities," Formica wrote. "Waterford's zoning rules also require as part of any development, a public park will be provided at no cost to the state or to visitors to the park. Waterford's Plan of Conservation and Development also allows for preservation of the historic buildings. However, the question remains as to whether that is possible due to the continued neglect."

Waterford First Selectman Rob Brule and state Rep. Kathleen McCarty, R-Waterford, testified in support of the bill. Both said they hoped for an affordable way to restore the sanitarium buildings for adaptive reuse while maintaining the surrounding state park area. Both recognized the "cultural and historical significance," in McCarty's words, of the property to the town.

McCarty supports an RFP "that explores the feasibility of a moderate development proposal preferably using and restoring the existing historic buildings," she wrote. "In my opinion, a proposal that balances continued use of the property as a state park with the preservation and adaptive reuse of the historic buildings, which may entail a variety of uses, is worthy of further exploration."

Brule mentioned his time growing up near Seaside. In written testimony, he outlined priorities for the town related to Seaside's future. At the top of the list is how a development would benefit Waterford's tax base..

"Waterford is, at its heart, a community that celebrates the connection to its coastlines, rivers, lakes, and streams," Brule added. "Connecting people to those resources is important. Any future use Seaside should address a universally accessible design to preserve and protect public access."

Brule said the town would like to see development that doesn't overwhelm the surrounding neighborhood. McCarty noted that the area is rural and that any development should remain consistent with its character. She repeatedly said she is opposed to any large-scale commercial development.

Another priority of the town's, according to Brule, is celebrating Seaside's history.

"The town is sensitive to the cost of rehabilitating historic structures," Brule writes. "A plan to preserve or replicate building facades should be considered in plans moving forward. At a minimum, interpretive signage about Seaside's history should be included in public spaces."

It's not the first time the state has considered requesting proposals to develop the Seaside facility.

Former Gov. Dannel P. Malloy designated Seaside a state park in 2014 after Waterford's Planning & Zoning Commission denied an application from a private developer. Years of research and public outreach ensued. The state issued an RFP in 2018 seeking a private partner that could provide restoration of the facility's historic buildings, a luxury hotel and waterfront enhancements. The state did not find a proper suitor, and Seaside has remained a state park open to the public for recreational activities.

Renowned architect Cass Gilbert, who was also behind the Woolworth Building in Manhattan and the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, among other well-known works, designed the Seaside facility in the early 1930s. Since then, it has served as a place for children with tuberculosis to heal, then a home for the elderly, then a hospital and lastly as a home for the mentally disabled.

In opposition to the bill were people from a variety of environmental and grassroots groups, including Friends of Seaside State Park, a nonprofit group focused on maintaining Seaside's buildings and its open space. Founding President Helen Curry, who is Gilbert's great-granddaughter, said the group is in the process of finalizing an overall plan for the park at the behest of Brule, the town's Planning Department and its Recreation & Parks Department.

"It is our intention to raise the funds, manage its progress and see that plan through to completion," Curry wrote. "We would like to ensure that the natural coastal habitat be maintained with minimal disturbances. We would like to create a quiet, restorative, contemplative Park within an overall land use plan including walking paths, gardens, passive beach activities and a small environmental education center, or perhaps an Inn in the Nurses Residence, which is the most architecturally important of the buildings."

She said her group wants to work with representatives of Camp Harkness, Harkness Memorial State Park and the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center.

"Please give us the chance to do this," she said. "Seeing only the possibility of development, or the sale of the property at this time is shortsighted. Think long and hard before you allow the State of Connecticut to lose this scarce waterfront public park, and surely doom to demolition both of its architecturally significant, and still structurally sound, historic buildings."

State Sen. Joan Hartley, D-Waterbury, co-chairwoman of the committee, asked Curry why this bill was introduced when the town has been in contact with the nonprofit about its plan. Curry said she didn't know this bill was going to come up, and she hasn't had a chance to speak with Formica.

"I just wish there could be a way for him to slow the process down and give us a chance to get our plan off the ground, so we could all work together to see this happen," she said.

s.spinella@theday.com

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