OLD LYME — Plans for a new office for the Roger Tory Peterson Estuary Center, which were described in a June 12, 2019 application to the Connecticut Port Authority as a close collaboration with the town, received a setback on Monday when the authority announced that the project had not been recommended for grant funding.
The Roger Tory Peterson Estuary Center, part of the statewide Connecticut Audubon Society, had applied for a $1.833 million grant in “round two” of the Small Harbor Improvement Projects Program to build an educational center at 314 Ferry Road. The nonprofit purchased the property for $199,000 in April 2019.
On receiving funding from the port authority, the estuary center promised to provide a 31 percent match, or $819,000, toward the project.
The application listed former Old Lyme First Selectman Bonnie Reemsnyder as a reference on the proposal. A letter of recommendation from Reemsnyder — mentioned as part of the application — was never received, according to port authority officials in response to inquiries on Tuesday.
Reemsnyder — who sat on the board of the port authority at the time — was elected board chair on June 19, 2019.
In response to a freedom of information request, the Office of the First Selectman of the Town of Old Lyme provided an unsigned draft letter by Reemsnyder in support of the project.
Roger Tory Peterson Building Committee Chair Mike Brown, said that his group had been in conversation with the town last year about a potential collaboration.
“When we started talking with the town we got involved with the Harbor Commission and we were talking about the boat launch that’s there and enabling that to do more kayak and canoe trips into the estuary from there, so we could lead those,” he said by phone Monday. “We were barnstorming all sorts of ideas. I think it would have been great for the town, it would have been great for the riverfront and it would have been great for education for kids.”
According to the application, the timeline for the project included a planning and design phase from June through August 2019, an engineering and environmental impact study and review from September 2019 to January 2020, and construction from February 2020 through May 2021:
“We are operating on an aggressive timeline due to our current rented space terminating in the summer of 2021. We have been able to adhere to the tight timeframe thus far and are requesting funding for the CT River Estuary Science and Research Education Center from the CT Port Authority to help us reach our May 2021 Grand Opening goal.”
Steven Ross, chair of the Old Lyme Harbor Commission, could not be reached for comment.
Town officials weigh in
First Selectman Tim Griswold said Wednesday that he did not know of any potential collaboration between the town and the Roger Tory Peterson organization, nor of the organization’s application for a SHIPP grant.
“I am not aware that the town is working with Roger Tory Peterson in a collaborative way. I thought they bought the property and had plans to locate their operation there and not all the neighbors are enthusiastic about it,” he said.
Reached by phone Wednesday, both Selectman Chris Kerr and Selectman Mary Jo Nosal said they were unaware of the grant application or of a collaboration between the town and the estuary center.
Reemsnyder could not be reached for comment on this story.
Brown said he thought the biggest reason for the rejection of the application was the June 12, 2019 deadline, which was only about a month after the organization had purchased the property.
“We just hadn’t had enough time to put together a well thought out plan as to what we were doing. We didn’t have architect’s drawings. We didn’t have zoning permission. There were a lot of things that we needed to do that just couldn’t work in the timeframe for the second round of the SHIPP grants,” he said.
In a joint email from the Connecticut Port Authority, however, Chair David Kooris, Program Manager Joe Salvatore, and Manager of Business Development and Special Projects Andrew Lavigne, said that the project did not meet eligibility requirements:
“Eligible projects are recommended for funding. For example: The property associated with the Audubon Estuary Center proposal is not a municipal-owned property and is therefore ineligible.”
In its second round of grants, the port authority chose to recommend 10 projects for a total of $4.19 million of grant funding. The authority chose not to recommend 7 other projects, including the estuary center in Old Lyme. Recommended projects would still require further approval from the State Bond Council before funds would be released.
Brown said that aside from the port authority application, factors related to the pandemic have also slowed down the project.
“This COVID-19 has really swung a wrench at us but we had a couple of donors that we thought were going to step up and with a crash in the stock market that seems to have become a much harder sell,” Brown said.
He said that an application had not yet been filed with the town’s zoning commission, but that the project would also require zoning approval, including approval for a special use permit.
“It’s a special use and not a change in zoning so I think we would be probably okay,” he said. “We’re not inconsistent with a lot of the other uses that are already there in that area.”
Brown said the group decided to put a stop to architectural plans a few months ago.
“We were spending money faster than we were bringing it and we weren’t sure where we were going to head,” he said.
He said that the organization rented a space two years ago in the Big Y shopping plaza on Halls Road in Old Lyme, but already needs more room.
“I think the application said a building of about 5,000 square feet on that one acre and if we’d gotten the money it would have helped us move the project along a lot faster,” he said. “We had proposed trails and educational signage. Everything we do would have fit in perfectly with the [town] open space that’s there — the DEEP, the beach, the state park and access to the Roger Tory Peterson Estuary, which is on the other side of the railroad bridge.”