The Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) passed one hurdle in its quest to add amenities to Silver Sands State Park, but Milford officials say there are still several steps to go before the project can move forward and that they plan to fight the project if it isn’t adjusted to address city concerns.
There was little fanfare about the decision, but at the end of April the DEEP approved, with some modifications, a permit to add a boardwalk extension to Silver Sands State Park, on which it plans to build restrooms and a concession stand.
At the end of last year, residents turned out in force to protest the park improvement plans, which also include adding parking spaces and installing a ticket booth, at which park visitors, including Miford residents, would have to pay a parking fee.
The DEEP’s April decision on the permit didn’t focus on parking or fees, but on the environmental impact of the planned work — installing a new section of boardwalk and repairing about 60 feet of existing boardwalk. The DEEP decision says the proposal meets state requirements for activity in a wetland area and that potential impacts on wildlife, primarily to nesting birds, will be offset by improvements in other areas of the park: those improvements are called for in a mitigation plan added to the overall plan.
“A seasonal restriction on construction from March 15 to September 1 will ensure any nesting habitat of the piping plover located on the beach will not be disturbed,” the decision states.
The mitigation plan added to the project will create more wildlife habitat in the park, and other changes to the project will be based on comments received from the public, according to DEEP Spokesman Dennis Schain.
“That information is still being assembled,” Schain said. “At the public meeting [last year], we committed to putting that information together on our website for the interested members of the community to see. We hope to do that in the coming weeks.”
At a packed City Hall meeting last September, residents listened to DEEP plans for park improvements, which include adding public bathrooms, lifeguard and law enforcement space, and a snack bar with a wraparound deck. Once the improvements are complete, the DEEP intends to start charging a parking fee — $9 during the week for state residents and $13 on weekends, plus tax. Now there is no parking fee.
While some residents said they think it’s unfair they will have to pay to park at a city-located park, the real concern voiced in September was that the fee will send people parking on streets along East Broadway and in other neighborhoods near the park.
DEEP officials counter that the amenities are sorely needed in a park that attracts many visitors from Milford and around the state.
According to Schain, next the project will be prepared for public bidding, bids will be reviewed and a contractor will be selected. Total cost of the project isn’t known yet, but Schain said “funding for the project is prioritized, with the available authorized bond funds for state park infrastructure improvements.”
“It is difficult to pinpoint a timeframe for the construction to be initiated, but late 2016 is a good estimate, and construction is expected to take approximately one year,” Schain said.
But Mayor Ben Blake and state Senator Gayle Slossberg said the permit approval does not mean the planned improvements are a done deal.
“It’s one more step,” Slossberg said. “The big thing is they don’t have the financing.”
Slossberg said approving funds for the project now would be “absolutely ludicrous” in light of state finances.
“People would be happy with reasonable bathrooms, but not with undermining the peaceful, natural feel and character of the park,” she said. Slossberg expects DEEP to hold another round of hearings on the proposal, and she said she’s still waiting for information she has requested from DEEP.
“They still have a number of steps to go with this, and I’m watching it closely,” Slossberg said.
State Rep. Kim Rose criticized the DEEP permit approval and park plans, saying that adding a fee at Silver Sands will send people parking elsewhere, including the Walnut Beach area, where neighbors also complain about beachgoers parking throughout their neighborhoods.
City officials recently upped the parking fee at Walnut and Gulf beaches, from $5 to $15 for non-residents, and in Walnut Beach police have started actively enforcing parking limits.
“I’m disappointed that DEEP did not take into account the will of the people of Milford, especially in this difficult economic time,” Rose said. “Now the city is left with the burden of handling the enforcement of a two-hour street parking regulation in and around Walnut Beach. We worked together to have our voices heard during this process and ultimately DEEP has moved forward with their own plan.
“And the residents of the Silver Beach area will continue to have problems, which will be exacerbated with the upgrades to the park,” Rose added.