UPDATED: Somers clarifies proposed state assistance efforts for Smiler's Wharf

Stonington — State Sen. Heather Somers clarified the confusion surrounding a request to provide up to $10 million in state funding for infrastructure and other improvements for the proposed Smiler’s Wharf project in downtown Mystic and a separate Senate bill that would have provided up to $10 million for various waterfront improvement initiatives throughout the town. 

That bill is now dead, Somers said Wednesday. 

Somers, R-Groton, said she and state Rep. Kate Rotella, D-Mystic, have requested that the state Department of Economic and Community Development allocate up to $10 million over a three- to five-year period for the Smiler’s Wharf project. She said the town would administer the funds, which would come from bonding, if they are approved. There has been no decision yet on the request. 

Somers said her Senate bill, which would have provided up to $10 million in bonding to the town for "infrastructure, waste water management, opening public access and economic development along the Mystic River," was not for Smiler’s Wharf but for coastal resiliency efforts throughout the town. She said that if the bill had passed, which it will not in this session, changes would have been made throughout the approval process to better define what the money would have been used for. It is possible some of the money could have gone to Smiler’s Wharf. 

Related: state Sen. Len Fasano, R-North Haven, pens guest opinion-editorial, "Collins’ attack on Somers was a smear"

First Selectman Rob Simmons, who said he had confused the two funding requests, earlier had told The Day that the bond money in the Senate bill was for Smiler’s Wharf.

Somers said the two efforts were two different pathways that she and Rotella were taking to address coastal resiliency efforts in town. Somers added it is common for her to seek DECD funding for various projects in her district, such as sidewalks in Pawcatuck. 

On Tuesday, Simmons had said that while he supports the Smiler’s Wharf project, neither he nor town Director of Planning Jason Vincent had anything to do with Seaport Marine seeking the funding request or help with the redevelopment of the site.

He said marina owner John Holstein and co-manager Harry Boardsen had submitted a request to DECD last year to provide funding for bulkhead and public access improvements. Simmons said if the grant is approved, DECD requires that the town administer the grant for the state.

Simmons wrote a letter to DECD Deputy Commissioner David Kooris last October supporting the request and confirming the town would administer the funds if they were approved.

Simmons said the bulkhead would help minimize the flooding risk for downtown Mystic properties due to sea level rise. Improving the town’s coastal resiliency and collaborating with private entities to do so are among the recommendations of the town’s Climate Change Task Force.

Simmons said that half of the structures at risk are considered historic properties.

"We are hopeful that this grant will leverage private investment along the bulkhead, and in doing so enhance this highly-valued public access, to be enjoyed by the community and the many visitors that are attracted to this beautiful neighborhood," Simmons wrote to Kooris.

Last week, the Stonington Economic Development Commission voted unanimously to endorse the Smiler’s Wharf project after Boardsen and his team again outlined plans to demolish much of the 11.5-acre site and redevelop it with a second restaurant, a marine services building, a 50-room boutique hotel and a mix of 47 apartments, townhouses and single-family homes.

Plans also call for a large boat basin and bulkhead to accommodate additional docking space and an 800-foot-long public-access boardwalk, event building, plaza and kayak pavilion. The plan has no retail space.

Opponents, many of whom live in the Washington Street area, maintain the project does not conform to the town’s Plan of Conservation, damages the character of the village, would increase traffic and does not have enough parking, which means cars would end up in front of their homes. They also charge that many of the residential units will become short-term rentals and be marketed through Airbnb and VRBO.

The Stonington Planning and Zoning Commission has scheduled a public hearing on a master plan application for May 28 at 7 p.m. at Mystic Middle School.

j.wojtas@theday.com

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