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Groton Town Council approves option agreement with developer for former Seely School

Groton — The Town Council on Tuesday evening voted 6-1, with one abstention, to approve an option agreement with DonMar Development of North Haven for the 14-acre former William Seely School property where the developer wants to build a 280-unit apartment complex.

Earlier in the evening, more than a dozen residents weighed in, either via the Zoom video conferencing platform or through written comments, during a public hearing on the proposed sale of the property at 55 Seely School Drive. The meeting was held virtually due to social distancing requirements during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Residents raised concerns over the project, including potential traffic on Walker Hill and loss of public space, or said the site should have single-family homes or mixed-use development. Some, however, lauded efforts to put the town-owned land back on the tax rolls.

The meeting was held after some residents had called for postponing it until after the pandemic.

John Suarez, a Grove Avenue resident, said his main concerns included the project's size and scope and possible traffic issues on Walker Hill Road and Grove and Fairview avenues.

Residents Laura and Thomas Cotto wrote that while grateful for efforts to move Groton forward, they are concerned the development’s proposed entrances and exits on Walker Hill Road “would add considerable traffic to our neighborhood which will be disruptive, noisy, and unsafe, as we do not have continuous sidewalks on our street.” They also are concerned about the loss of public space for children to play.

Resident Thomas W. Potter said some studies indicate Groton needs more single-family homes, not more apartments.

“It is difficult to determine if an apartment complex of three buildings comprised of 280 living units, and amenities, will generate more tax revenues for the Town of Groton than a development of single-family homes,” he wrote. “The neighborhood sees this entire issue as an offset of tiny possible savings from a lower mill rate for property taxes versus major and significant losses in the resale value of our individual residential properties.”

Resident Nancy Kenyon, who opposes the project, wrote, “It is time for Groton to have much better quality housing and retail.”

Abutting property owner Gretchen Chipperini, who raised a series of questions about the project, said the site, which has utilities and a river view and is near Interstate 95, has huge potential and is better suited for mixed-use development.

Resident Robert Bailey requested that the property not be sold for development and that prior school buildings become open space sites.

However, the project also had supporters.

“Developers are not easily found and we want to congratulate your team’s efforts to find a viable, tax-paying alternative to another publicly owned languishing building,” Groton residents Gretchen and George Gauthier wrote.

John Scott of Mystic said he supported both the William Seely School and the Mystic Education Center projects to put the properties back on the tax rolls.

Groton Conservation Commission Chairman Larry Dunn wrote that the commission supports the project, but wants to ensure the open space envisioned in the plan is legally protected and that the trails are open to the public.

By town charter, the sale of the property will have to go before the Representative Town Meeting. State statute required the town to hold the hearing on the sale of the property.

Option agreement

After the hearing, the council discussed and voted on authorizing Town Manager John Burt to sign an option agreement with DonMar. The agreement is for a year, with the option of extending for another six months.

Burt said the price for the property is $1 and the developer will take on the demolition costs.

Jon Reiner, the town's planning and development director, said the developer obtained a demolition estimate of about $2.1 million. The town’s Public Works department also did a rough estimate, based on the size of the building and recent bids for other projects, that it would cost about $1,470,000.

Reiner estimates that the development, once fully built out, would generate about $750,000 in annual tax revenue.

DonMar Development’s Triton Square housing proposal, with 280 apartments in three buildings, calls for a clubhouse, pool, grilling stations, walking trail and dog park, among other amenities.

Town Economic and Community Development Manager Paige Bronk said Groton has learned through its market analysis and heard from the development community and major employers that if the town wants to attract people who not only want to work but also live here, the community needs more housing options. He said one of those options is “amenity-rich” housing that is particularly attractive to younger workers and empty nesters.

Reiner said the plans will have to go before the Town Council for approval and then through regulatory approvals, including the Inland Wetlands Agency and Planning and Zoning Commission. The developer typically purchases the property once those approvals are granted.

Town Mayor Patrice Granatosky said residents will have the opportunity to comment every step of the way.

Reiner said a traffic study will look at potential improvements, and DonMar also plans to reach out to major employers about the idea of bringing a shuttle bus to the development. Additional aspects of the project, such as the use of undeveloped land on the property, will be addressed as part of the regulatory processes.

Council members Rachael Franco, Granatosky, Conrad Heede, Juan Melendez, Lian Obrey and Juliette Parker voted in favor, while Aundré Bumgardner opposed, and Portia Bordelon abstained.

Obrey said she was excited about the project and reminded the councilors that when they joined the council, one of their priorities was to put the school buildings back onto the tax rolls and she thinks they are achieving that.

Bumgardner said he had concerns about the traffic impact on the area and how the project connects with the rest of the neighborhood, but appreciates that the developer would like to incorporate sustainable practices within the proposed development and also thanked town staff for their efforts.

k.drelich@theday.com

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