Formica bill faces opposition from state parks advocates [New London Day]

February 17, 2015

Article as it appeared in the New London Day

Formica bill faces opposition from state parks advocates
Published February 14. 2015 4:00AMUpdated February 14. 2015 10:48PM
By Tess Townsend

Hartford – Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Commissioner Rob Klee said Friday he agrees with the spirit of transparency in a bill that would require state officials to hold a public hearing in any town where a new state park is under consideration, but said such a law could interfere with private negotiations pertaining to purchasing land for such parks.

Klee made his comments during an Environment Committee hearing for Senate Bill 215. The bill, proposed by Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, would require DEEP “to hold a public hearing in the town where any new state park is proposed and to notify local officials of the intent to establish a new state park in such town. Additionally, any plan to establish such a state park shall be detailed and indicate funding sources for such project.”

The bill has drawn opposition from numerous organizations that support Connecticut’s state parks, according to written testimony.

“While this language and the bill’s intent appear relatively straightforward – i.e., to bring transparency to the processes related to the creation (of) a new state park – as drafted, the bill may require having a hearing at a time when a substantive conversation with the public may not be appropriate, or when the information needed to have a substantive conversation may not yet be available,” reads written testimony submitted by Klee to the committee.

He said after he left the hearing that even in a situation where purchasing negotiations have already been made public, there may not be sufficient information to hold an effective public hearing.

He said he felt that DEEP’s current approach – holding public meetings in which attendees can speak one-on-one with state officials and others involved in planning the park – is effective. Formica has said he supports holding such meetings, but thinks formal public hearings where attendees’ comments are formally recorded are essential nonetheless.

“When we have those conversations, those conversations need to be public and that’s the difference between having someone come up to the microphone and speaking on record, versus coming up afterward and saying, ‘Hey, you know’ – which never gets (on) the record,” he said.

Formica and Waterford First Selectman Daniel Steward, a Republican, testified in support of the bill during the hearing.

Formica said the bill was intended to ensure notification of town officials and fiscal transparency prior to the founding of a park. He said the bill was inspired by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s announcement in September that the former Seaside Regional Center for the developmentally disabled, located off Shore Road in Waterford, would become a state park.

Formica in the past has mentioned that dealing with the aging buildings once used to house medical facilities on the property will be an expensive endeavor – whether the buildings are restored, renovated or torn down.

“There was a decision to make an area a park and yet there were no plans, there were no dollars, there were no specifics” to bring that about, he said in a past interview.

Steward said the state officials were planning on establishing the park while the state faced budgetary challenges.

He said that he wished to see an environment where there is better communication between state and community leadership.

“In this case, that didn’t happen,” he said.

When committee chairman Sen. Ted Kennedy Jr., D-Branford, asked Steward how he had become aware of the plan to turn Seaside into a state park, Steward said he had found out the morning Malloy made his announcement.

Steward said he first found out about the governor holding a news conference at the Seaside site from media reports that morning.

Written testimony opposing the bill criticizes the proposal as too restrictive.

“I daresay that had these kinds of provisions been part of law in the first one hundred years of the CT State Parks System, we’d be lucky to have 8 parks rather than our present 108, and perhaps none, as not one of our parks is self-sustaining,” wrote Eileen Grant of Madison, who identified herself as past president of the Friends of CT State Parks Board of Directors and a current member of the Board of Trustees for
Harkness Memorial State Park. Harkness neighbors the Seaside property.

She wrote that the state parks organization wished “to express its very strong unequivocal opposition to the insertion of new restrictive language into existing statute regarding establishment of any additional state parks.”

“This is clearly a politically motivated partisan response to the establishment of the State’s newest park in Waterford,” read written testimony from
Allan Jacques, who lives near Seaside and has stated that he supports the governor’s decision to turn the property into a state park.