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Mystic Education Center proposal draws opposition and support

Groton — While the developer has not yet submitted a formal application, a proposal to redevelop the Mystic Education Center property into a mixed-use village already is drawing both criticism and support, with the Town Council recently strongly endorsing the project.

Neighbors in opposition say the project is too large for the area and raised concerns over traffic, lighting and noise from the proposed development, while the Town Council and supporters say the proposal would get long-idle property back on the tax rolls, encourage people working in Groton to live here and create recreational space for Groton residents.

Respler Homes LLC, the developer for the state-owned former Mystic Oral School property, envisions a mixed-use development, called "Mystic River Bluffs," with "a commercial hub" housed in the Oral School building and about 931 housing units that would bring young professionals, such as Electric Boat employees, to live in Groton. The village would be a "live, work and play" community designed to fit the Gen Z and millennial lifestyle, developer Jeff Respler described in a public presentation posted on the company's website. The development would be built in phases.

Since unveiling the project at a public meeting in the fall of 2019, Respler said the company acquired property that would enable traffic improvements, with townhomes placed on the approximately 16-acre abutting site, called the Firgeleski property.

Neighbors have spoken out against the size of the project, among other concerns.

The Groton Town Council recently wrote an op-ed in favor of the project, citing that the development would preserve historic buildings, promote "Smart Growth" "to combat sprawl and build density," provide needed housing to draw people working in Groton to live in Groton, and provide for the renovation of the Pratt Building pool and potentially the theatre. The Council said the project would become Groton's third largest taxpayer, with the town needing to grow its tax base for its school system, library and green space.

"The redevelopment of the vacant State-owned Mystic Education Center property is a great opportunity for the Town," Town Mayor Patrice Granatosky said about the decision to write the commentary. "The Council simply wanted to voice our support in response to questions we had received from our constituents."

Some residents echoed the supportive comments and said the town needs the tax growth and the development would bring more young people to the town, while others strongly disagreed and said the scale of the project is too large.

"The beautiful wooded hills overlooking the Mystic River are threatened with explosive commercialization, both from the extremely large and expanding Respler development itself and also from the buildout that inevitably would flow from it," said Mystic resident Jim Furlong, who recently wrote an op-ed against the project.  "Groton needs tax revenues to maintain its excellent services, but redevelopment of our tired 1950s downtown — not this proposed shortcut — is the key to bringing in people who work here but live elsewhere."

Groton resident Tammy de la Cruz wrote to the Council asking that those deciding on the fate of the project make their decision based on the "good of our community."

"Too many times has the rest of Groton paid for the decisions made to please those who do not want economic development near their homes," she wrote. "The time is now to get this going so that we can grow our area and create a beautiful place out of a run down property, while creating a tax base."

Bruce Jones, a District 7 representative on the Representative Town Meeting, said the project would contribute to the future growth and success of the town, and he supports "Smart Growth."

"I also like the energy being put into trying to bring more people that work for our major employers in as residents to the town," he added.

Scott Westervelt of Mystic Oral School Advocates, a concerned citizens group with more than 50 members around Mystic and part of Groton, said the proposed project's size and density, the potential impact of blasting on homes in the area, which have wells, and an increase in local traffic are top concerns. While not wanting to stop development, the group wants to eliminate or scale back the project, or prevent the zoning changes that would allow a project of its size.

Groton Planning and Development Director Jon Reiner said the project to redevelop the state-owned property on Oral School Road — which was initially the campus for the Whipple School for the Deaf and served a variety of purposes until the state listed it as surplus property in 2011 — is still in the conceptual stage and the developer has not yet submitted a formal application. 

The Town Council approved a development agreement last year that names Respler Homes as the exclusive developer for the Mystic Education Center and sets a framework to move toward development, but does not guarantee any approvals.

The Planning and Zoning Commission has held a number of meetings to discuss and give feedback regarding a draft zoning text amendment for the property, Reiner said.

If a text amendment is approved, Respler Homes then would need to apply to place that zoning on the property and seek approval for a master plan, and after that apply for site plan and inland wetlands approvals.

Respler Homes is proposing to redevelop the long-idle property in a way that preserves historic buildings, which are degrading and being vandalized, and remediate environmental pollution, Reiner and Groton Economic and Community Development Manager Paige Bronk said. As part of the concept, the developer would renovate the Pratt Building for reuse as a town recreation center.

The state has an agreement with Respler Homes to sell the property once certain thresholds are met, including the developer completing the due diligence phase of the project and land use approvals, Bronk said.

The developer has said tax-increment financing will be necessary for the development to move forward, but at this point a TIF District has not yet been presented to the council nor has the council negotiated a credit enhancement agreement, Reiner said.

Bronk said the interest and concerns from neighbors are understandable, but said it could be that the process is most confusing since it's different than when a developer submits a fairly detailed application for a private project and people can comment then. The Mystic Education Center reuse proposal has to go through multiple steps before a detailed site plan is submitted, so the details are not available yet.

He said a project of this scale is going to evolve as it moves through multiple levels of review and approval, and it would not be surprising if certain changes are made to accommodate needs or possible concerns, but it's not possible to know what the project ultimately will be before the process has begun.

Meanwhile, a consultant, GreatBlue Research, will be contacting people around town to conduct a statistically valid phone survey, and an online survey also will be posted on social media and the town website for people in Groton, so the consultant can get additional data and clarity on what people would like to see for the Pratt Building, Reiner said. The council would make the ultimate decision on the space allocation within the Pratt Building.

k.drelich@theday.com

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