Chelsea Gardens to terminate lease with Norwich, cancels embattled project

A freshly cut tree is seen at the gate to the Chelsea Gardens site at Mohegan Park on Aug. 25, 2015. (Tim Cook/The Day)
A freshly cut tree is seen at the gate to the Chelsea Gardens site at Mohegan Park on Aug. 25, 2015. (Tim Cook/The Day)

Norwich – Members of the Chelsea Gardens Foundation announced late Monday it is willing to negotiate early termination of its lease for 80 acres in Mohegan Park near the city’s Rose Garden, saying the well of public and private support for the project “was poisoned” by opponents.

The group's decision, effectively kills the project.  

“It’s unfortunate,” Chelsea Gardens Foundation board member Robert Reed said following a 20-minute closed door meeting with the City Council following Monday’s council meeting. “We won the battle, but we kind of lost the war.”

Attorney Theodore Phillips, who is working with the foundation pro bono, said he will negotiate with city Corporation Counsel Michael Driscoll to terminate the remaining years of the 99-year lease the nonprofit foundation secured with the City Council in 1993. Following a recording of the lease termination on city land records, Phillips said he would file corporation dissolution papers with the Secretary of the State’s office.

Phillips estimated the termination process will take about 30 days. The termination agreement will have to be approved by the City Council.

The foundation secured a ground lease from the city in 1993 and has been working slowly on plans to develop a multimillion-dollar botanical garden project that has changed in design and scope over the years. In 2013, the group received planning permit approvals.

In a press release issued following Monday's executive session, the foundation said the project has been in the works for more than two decades.

“Botanical gardens are projects that take a lifetime to bring from concept to completion. We did all studies required and paid as we went,” it stated.

But opposition erupted in spring of 2015, when the foundation clear cut six acres of trees in an area that would have been the center of the garden project, with a butterfly garden, educational center, welcome center and walkways leading into the remaining park area.

Butternut Road resident Charles Evans led the opposition, berating the organization for cutting trees in the city-owned Mohegan Park without the funding to go forward with the project. The group contacted supporting corporations and foundations, and voiced objections to the project. Opponents filed a lawsuit which a New London Superior Court judge later dismissed in January 2016.

“The foundation won the 2015 lawsuit brought against it by the neighbors,” Phillips wrote in the press release, “but the well for continued private and corporate support was poisoned.”

Phillips said not only did corporate and other foundation support dry up, but state and federal finances also made it unlikely to obtain public sector grants. Opponents regularly addressed the City Council and urged aldermen not to issue any additional city grants for the project. Chelsea Gardens had received $262,949 from city sources – mostly community development block grants, Sachem Fund and the Mohegan Park Improvements and Development Committee -- between 1998 and 2011 to fund studies and garden plans.

Phillips said the foundation has some funds dedicated to memorial gardens, and will work out “alternative arrangements” with the donor families.

The foundation will turn over all completed plans and studies to the city in case someone wishes to revive the project in the future.

“It’s a shame that so many good people were vilified simply for trying to help their community,” Mayor Peter Nystrom, a supporter of the project, said after the executive session.

c.bessette@theday.com

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