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Town needs clear-eyed view of major Mystic River Bluffs project

There is much to like about the proposal to redevelop the former Mystic Oral School property in Groton, tucked atop bluffs aside the Mystic River and next to Interstate 95.

The proposal by Respler Homes LLC defines “smart growth” development and would be attractive to the generation of young professionals, working at Electric Boat, Pfizer, and other industries that it is meant to target.

Rather than sprawling out single-family homes on big lots that chew up large expanses of land and are disruptive to wildlife, the developer envisions clusters of apartment buildings. The former oral school buildings would be saved and repurposed as a central “village,” with shops and eateries catering to those living at “Mystic River Bluffs,” and offices occupying second floors.

It would be a community, but its amenities open to the general public, including walking and biking trails, a kayak launch, and a former theater refurbished to host community theater.

But there are also concerns.

The project seems out of scale for the site, up to 930 units.

The developer behind the project, Jeffrey Respler, has a criminal past that town officials seem to want to simply dismiss as no big deal. It is a big deal and raises red flags. In December 2004, Respler, then owner of Plumbing Solutions Inc., which had won a big contract to install water meters in New York City, pleaded guilty to conspiring with a local union leader to sell property at an inflated rate and kick back $1.3 million to his co-conspirator. He pleaded guilty to four counts of conspiracy, escaping jail time.

Respler has maintained he was as much victim as perpetrator. He was swimming among sharks and, though having knowingly done nothing wrong, agreed to plead guilty for fear of seeing his business destroyed. That was his story to The Day and town officials.

But the record shows something else. Standing before a judge, under oath, on Nov. 29, 2004, Respler admitted in detail to kick backs, bribery, filing false documents and perjury.

Do these acts of now 17 years ago disqualify Respler? They do not. But his unwillingness to be frank about them adds to our concern. At the very least the town needs to be extremely diligent in working with Mr. Respler, making sure he is meeting all the requirements of the Development Agreement he signed with the town as preferred developer.

Instead, numerous deadlines set out in the Development Agreement have come and gone without town officials demanding compliance by the developer or documenting the failure to comply. These include deadlines to provide written notice of the subdivisions the project will require; to come to terms on a lease agreement for the Pratt Building on the property; and for the developer to provide detailed and documentary support for how Tax Increment Financing, meaning tax breaks, will be utilized.

If the town does not demand compliance, it could invite a prolonged legal entanglement with the developer should this proposal go south.

In a meeting with the Day Editorial Board, Respler said he was open to starting with a first phase of 330 residential units. But he also cautioned that a development of a certain size will be needed to support the redevelopment of the oral school for new uses and for the envisioned amenities.

Any development that does not include the reuse of the oral school buildings is unacceptable. The town, and the state since as the landowner it is a party to this, must receive ironclad assurances that redevelopment of the existing buildings must be part and parcel with any housing development.

If the town, state and developer cannot agree on a project of reasonable size — and we will let the planning and zoning regulators sort that out — that can also financially support reuse of the oral school buildings, then it would be time to walk away.

This project should not be stopped just because some neighbors object, rather their concerns should be given the weight they deserve as the process moves forward. On the other hand, town officials should not be so enthusiastic about the plan that they are blind to its significant warts.

Basically, we want a fair process.

 

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Izaskun E. Larrañeta, staff writer Erica Moser and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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