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Vet promising plan for Seaside funding

Published May 18. 2013 4:00AM

Both the Town of Waterford and the lawmakers that represent it are taking the right step in proceeding cautiously before pursuing legislation that would create a special tax district. A developer contends the district is needed to generate the financing for his condominium redevelopment project at the former Seaside Regional Center.

The Day long ago gave its editorial backing to developer Mark Steiner's vision for the vacant property, which once served as a tuberculosis sanatorium and later housed individuals with developmental disabilities. His proposal would save the historic buildings on the property by redeveloping them as a 122-unit, upscale condominium complex on the shores of Long Island Sound. It would include a 4.5-acre public park assuring public access to the shoreline. And it would transfer ownership from the state, which has been a disgraceful steward, and place it in private hands and on the tax rolls, generating up to $2 million in tax revenues annually.

Mr. Steiner and the Seaside in Waterford Limited Liability Co. he created to pursue the project have been at this since 1999. To a large extent the developer's inability to more forward sooner, and at a time when the market for such a project was better, results from the state's failure to pursue a consistent policy. At different points the state has supported the plan, but failed to provide the necessary backing to complete the transfer of the property to the developer, and at other points pulled that support.

And during all that time the state has failed to maintain the buildings on the property. The deterioration has continued and the cost of restoration grown.

The result, says the developer, is a dramatic escalation in price. In a letter seeking political support for the tax district proposal, attorney Joseph A. Vitale of Cheshire estimated the "extraordinary infrastructure costs" - above what a typical condominium project of this scale would entail - at $8.5 million, including $2 million to repair the seawall.

The developer, according to his attorney, is unable to obtain the financing to cover those extraordinary costs.

His solution is creation of a special tax district - the Seaside Improvement District - allowing the issuance of bonds to cover the high cost of development, with a tax assessed on the condominium owners generating the revenue to pay for off the bonds.

This unusual move to tap financing for the project would require legislative action because Mr. Steiner is seeking creation of the tax district prior to any voters residing there. This approach has been used before, twice in Windsor to drive development projects there. Under his proposal, the district would not be created until the transfer of the property by the state and only after a public hearing. This are vital requirements.

In a letter on town letterhead to state Sen. Andrea Stillman and state Rep. Elizabeth Ritter, the Democrats representing the town in the General Assembly, First Selectman Daniel Steward stated, "I support the initiative to create the special taxing district at Seaside and request that you, as our state elected officials, provide the support necessary to accomplish this goal."

Mr. Steward now says the endorsement was only his opinion, but it sure reads like town support. Perhaps recognizing he went a bit too far in his zest to get this project going, Mr. Steward will ask for the support of the Board of Selectmen at Tuesday's meeting, which starts at 5 p.m. There will be an opportunity for public comments and questions.

The Representative Town Meeting should also be asked to weigh in. Yes, that will take time, but this is a big decision. Sen. Stillman and Rep. Ritter, quite correctly, say they don't want to proceed without town support. Selectmen and RTM review and approval could provide it.

Caution is in order. As much as we want to see this project move forward, legislation should not be rushed to a vote in the closing days of the session unless all questions are answered. The town needs to fully understand the implications of creating a tax district without knowing for sure the project will be completed as planned. This would be the first special taxing district in the town, no small step.

Only with town support, and all questions satisfactorily answered, should Sen. Stillman and Rep. Ritter pursue the legislation.

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