Stonington — The town plans to seek a zone change for the Mystic River Boathouse Park property in an effort to give architects more flexibility in designing a building that residents like.
In addition, the town also has released more details on the cost of the project and a timeline, which now includes obtaining 21 separate local, state and federal permits.
Taxpayers in 2016 approved $2.2 million in bonding to create the park with public access to the Mystic River. A private group of rowing supporters is raising money to construct the $2.5 million boathouse, which will be home to the 90-member Stonington High School crew team and the Stonington Community Rowing Center, which will be open to the public, as well.
Several issues have slowed the creation of the park. Residents have criticized the design of the boathouse as too modern, concerns have been raised about the extent of the environmental contamination on the site and two buildings on the property are part of the Rossie Velvet Mill Historic District and may have to be preserved instead of being torn down to make way for the boathouse.
In separate interviews this week, the town’s Director of Planning Jason Vincent and First Selectman Rob Simmons discussed the challenges that have to be overcome to make the park a reality.
While town officials knew about some of the permits that would be needed, such as one from the Planning and Zoning Commission and a coastal area management permit from the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, Vincent said the actual number has surprised him. The number of permits has grown due to the requirements of the different state and federal agencies from which the town is seeking grant funding for the work.
“When you use federal and state money, it triggers a number of different reviews,” Vincent said.
Asked why the town did not first perform all the needed studies and obtain all the needed permits before asking residents to approve the bonding, both Vincent and Simmons said the town has never shown any willingness to spend such money in the past and if the park bond had been voted down, the money spent on studies and permits would have been wasted.
In addition, Simmons said residents clearly stated in the town’s updated Plan of Conservation and Development that they wanted more open space, recreation areas and access to the water, all of which the park will provide.
Vincent also said the town now will ask the Planning and Zoning Commission to change the zoning of the property from residential on 10,000-square-foot lots to Maritime Heritage District, which is the zoning designation for the adjacent Mystic Seaport Museum.
He said the change will give the town a larger footprint to work with, as well as allow for a taller building.
The RH-10 zone restricts the height of the boathouse, as well as where it can be located. Because the boathouse is a functional structure that calls for rowing shells on the first floor and training space on the second, there was no height left for a more traditional pitched roof in the original design. The zone change would allow for one.
“We’re trying to change the zoning to allow for more creative site and architectural design,” Vincent said.
A Planning and Zoning Commission public hearing on the zone change request is expected next month. Meanwhile, town officials continue to work with the state Historic Preservation Office about whether it will make the town preserve the existing home and garage on the site.
In the event the state requires one or both of the buildings to be preserved, the zone change would give the architects designing the boathouse and the park implementation committee a way to incorporate them into the plan or possibly come up with a design to use the home as part of the boathouse.
This means that the proposed site plan for the park, which was approved by the park committee, will change.
Vincent said the plan will continue to evolve as permits are sought for work in a coastal zone, environmental cleanup, site work, parking, historic preservation and other issues.
The project schedule now calls for construction to begin in April of 2020. Vincent cautioned that depends on how fast the various agencies can review and approve the almost two dozen permits.
The preliminary cost estimate for the project is now $3,230,000. The town expects to receive $2,790,000 million in state and federal grants to clean up the site. Although that money has yet to be approved, Vincent and Simmons said the town has been assured that it meets the requirements for the money.
That leaves the cost to the town at $440,000. The town has $520,00 left from the bonding that was approved for the park. The rest of the money has been spent on buying the 1.5-acre site and design and study work up to this point.
When the project was presented to voters, the $2.2 million was described as the money needed to buy the property and create the park. There was no mention at the time of the town having to obtain $2.8 million in state and federal funding.
Simmons, though, pointed out there have been five previous environmental studies of the property.
“We didn’t go into this blindly. We had a good idea we could remediate the property,” he said.