SOUTH LYME — “This place used to be cool. Even five or six years ago there were 48 boats here and this past year there were only six and a lot of it is due to the conditions — it’s not in the best of shape,” said Michael Barnes, who gestured to the wooden docks and sprawling gravel parking lot of the marina he bought on Nov. 9.
“It’s a diamond in the rough,” he said. “There’s good fishing in the river and Long Island Sound is right there.”
Located at 8 Bank St., the 2.2-acre property — which Barnes will rename River Landing Marina — fronts Four Mile River across from Rocky Neck Park and has space for about 50 slips.
The property will need some improvements, Barnes said, but the structures and layout are functional.
“Basically it’s about renewing some permits that have since expired and we still have an active Army Corps permit that will allow for some of the improvements and enhancements to the docks. Basically we need to dredge and add some materials to the parking lot to bring the grade up. So when we dredge, we’ll be able to use some of the materials from the dredging,” said Barnes who is also a realtor and owns Eco Wash Solutions, a power-washing company.
Barnes said he has acquired extensive knowledge about marinas and the necessary permits because he and his family have spent 14 years working to renew the permits on their 3.67-acre site at 4 Boston Post Road in Madison, where a marina, restaurant and residence once stood. In 1970 the State of Connecticut took the property by eminent domain to widen Route 1 and replace the bridge over the East River, which included demolishing the buildings.
On April 16, the Madison Planning and Zoning Commission approved with conditions the project, which will include a 1,684-square-foot- one-story building that will hold a 2-bedroom apartment, a 20-seat restaurant, and a marina office.
“It took me 14 years to get the approvals between the Army Corps, the DEEP and the town. All the uses that were approved there were uses that previously existed there. We were bounded by our septic volume and that dictated the size of the project,” he said.
Barnes said the family hoped to develop it at some point, but due to personal circumstances within the family, for now, the property is for sale.
In terms of his new property, Barnes said he grew up in the beige house nearly next door to the marina and he has lived in the neighborhood on the River Road for most of his life.
“I’ve lived in four of the seven homes on this street. As a kid, I spent my childhood from age eight on pretty much bothering the people at this marina and that marina,” he said, pointing to the adjacent Four Mile River Marina.
Before moving to Old Lyme, he grew up in Wellington, Florida, in what he called a suburban cookie-cutter subdivision.
“I was fortunate enough to come home from school, get on the little boat that I had, and this was what I did everyday. I didn’t play video games and crap like that,” said Barnes, who has three boys, ages 2, 3, and 6. “The intention was I always wanted to be back here to raise my own family because just the way technology is going with children, this is the only outlet I could think of as a way to get them involved and get them outside.”
He said he’d like to buy the beige house someday, but first, the marina needs work, including riprap or a sea wall to prevent erosion.
“Everytime it rains, you get the sedimentation because of the way the road is shaped. All the water comes down River Road and down through here and just washes out,” he said.
The entrance to the parking is significantly higher than the area near the docks and he said the erosion is severe enough to prevent wetlands vegetation from growing.
“Part of the reason the river is silting in is the banks of the river bank are dropping in. When the boats go out, the waves are undercutting the marsh, and it’s undermining it and then it collapses in on itself,” he said. “When you go down the river, it used to be deep right up to the side and now there’s 10 feet on each side, you can see the banks are falling in because the vegetation isn’t enough to support it.”
The State of the Connecticut and the Town of Old Lyme dredged the Four Mile River in 2015 but it needs to be continually dredged because of runoff and sediments, said Barnes.
“This river runs all the way to I-95 and so anything that comes off I-95 discharges into this river so there’s a lot of sediment and sand and all that runoff coming from development is what’s silting in the river,” he said.
He thinks he’ll have the marina fully renovated in two years but said he can rent boat slips now.
Barnes said that this project feels more streamlined than the Madison location because there are fewer zoning and permitting issues.
“The big difference between this place and that place is [in Madison] is it had been vacant for 50 years whereas with this marina all the infrastructure and the permits exist, so improving it is going to be easier,” he said.
Barnes said he spent “literally thousands and thousands of hours” to get the approvals in Madison.
“But now all that knowledge that I accumulated for those 14 years, I’m able to apply here,” he said. “It wasn’t a waste for me.”