Groton residents remain guarded about Mystic development proposal
Mystic — Scott Westervelt, who has lived on Boulder Court at the bottom of the hill from the former Mystic Oral School for more than 35 years, is concerned a large mixed-use development on the property would add traffic to narrow roads and disturb the neighborhood and environment.
“An overly dense population moving into this area would destroy the quiet solitude that we have down on Boulder Court,” he said.
He is a co-chairperson of the Mystic Oral School Advocates, a group of about 125 people in the surrounding neighborhoods and Groton, which he said is working to restrict the proposed "mega development" or prevent the zoning that would allow it to move forward.
He and members of the group also are worried about the effects of blasting on homes and wells, among other concerns, and want the site to remain residential to fit in with the surrounding neighborhood.
Respler Homes, which has a contract with the state to purchase the property that has remained idle since the state shuttered the campus a decade ago, has envisioned building a mixed-use village, with commercial space in the main former Mystic Oral School building and apartments, on the site.
That proposal appears to be at a crossroads, with the Planning and Zoning Commission recently reaching the informal consensus that it will not create a special floating zone for the redevelopment of the property. Instead, commissioners signaled they would be interested in rural residential zoning, perhaps of a somewhat higher density than the current rural residential RU-80 zone. The commission will not change the zoning, but will leave it to the developer to make an application.
Respler Homes is "exploring all our options" and will consider its next steps based on input from the town and state, said Ray Kehrhahn, consultant for Respler Homes, which has a development agreement with the town and, under a purchase and sales agreement with the state, has until November 2022 to close on the property.
Mystic Oral School Advocates members said their mission remains unchanged and noted that the Planning and Zoning Commission did not take an official vote.
"It's not set in stone, so until we have something where we can feel comfortable with what is going on, we have to continue making our voices heard," said Beth Tillman, who lives on River Road.
Mystic Education Center
Inside the main building at the Mystic Education Center, playing cards and a current events banner remain from years ago.
Paint is peeling, graffiti mars the walls and broken glass litters the floors.
The nearby Pratt Building, once a recreation center for the town, is vacant, with an empty Olympic-sized pool, bowling lanes, a 400-person theater and fitness spaces.
These brick buildings still stand on the site, though the state has torn down some of the other buildings. Kehrhahn and Respler Homes spokesperson Chuck Coursey gave The Day a tour of the buildings on June 23 and noted that the site was covered with graffiti, broken windows and leaking roofs prior to their leasing of the property. They said they have taken measures to secure the buildings and deter vandals and though that helped with stopping interior graffiti, break-ins and arrests continued up until the past month or so.
The Mystic Education Center also is called the Mystic Oral School, as it was a school for the deaf until 1980. It then hosted such programs as a day care center, a technology business, firefighting training and the town's Parks and Recreation program until the state closed down the campus in 2011 to save about $400,000 in annual operating costs.
The state and town jointly marketed the property. Respler Homes was chosen as the developer after a request for proposals process for the 77-acre property, with 37 acres designated for open space, at 240 Oral School Road, and the approximately 8-acre property at 0 Oral School Road.
Respler Homes has not submitted an official application yet but envisions building luxury apartments on the property and preserving and renovating the historical main oral school building, which would be used for offices and commercial space, such as a market, mail service center and a restaurant, with local restaurateurs expressing interest, according to Kehrhahn, who said the renovations would cost tens of millions of dollars.
Respler Homes also envisions potentially renovating the 40,000-square-foot Pratt Building with tax increment financing, and also said it would install trails down to the Mystic River and fix up the boat launch.
The proposal initially was unveiled as 750 to 850 residential units, but then grew to about 931 units, with the addition of adjacent acreage acquired to also create a new access road to the site to help reduce traffic impacts and acreage to allow for other roadway improvements, the development team has said. Kehrhahn said the development team also is willing to put in a buffer between the site and the neighbors' homes.
"It's important that we listen to their concerns and see what we can do to address them and mitigate them," Coursey said.
Kehrhahn said the feedback from the Planning and Zoning Commission is important because Respler Homes wants to build something that makes sense for the town, and is exploring options that will incorporate both town and state feedback.
A couple dozen members of the Mystic Oral School Advocates recently met with The Day by the Mystic Education Center, and some members gave a walking tour of the neighborhood by Boulder Court.
David Kalla and his wife moved onto High Street in October and were unaware, as he suspects many other people were, of the proposal.
“It’s frightening to think of the scope of the proposal that’s being made here being absorbed into this residential community where we live,” Kalla said.
He added that it’s a quiet, family neighborhood. While he realizes families could live in the proposed development, the 900 units would bring “a huge addition” to the number of people living in an already crowded area. He said it's gotten to the point that when he wants to go to downtown Mystic, he won’t even take his car, so he doesn’t see how the development could be done and maintain the current environment and community.
Kalla hopes the site can be developed according to residential zoning that is respectful of the community.
Jim Furlong, who lives in Mystic but not in the neighborhood, said that if the development were to be approved, which he hopes won’t happen, it would spread beyond the site. He said someone has compared the proposal to “putting an elephant inside of a bottle.”
“It’s a beautiful area, and it’s located above a beautiful river,” he added.
Tillman said the proposal for the Mystic Education Center includes more units than Branford Manor and The Ledges apartment complex combined. She said that even though the Ledges complex is an “open space development,” all that is visible from a drone flyover is rooftops and asphalt, which she would hate to see happen to the Mystic Education Center.
Westervelt said single-family homes would be an excellent use for the property, while assisted living and similar developments also would be fine.
Genevieve Cerf, who lives on Pearl Street in Mystic and is a former Representative Town Meeting and Town Council member, offered some smaller project ideas for the property, such as a small senior housing development, keeping the pool for kids and the theater, a satellite parking area where people could rent bikes to travel to downtown Mystic, or artists' lofts and incubator places for new businesses similar to the Velvet Mill in Stonington.
“The real workshops should be with tons of people in town, throwing out ideas and then getting together and agreeing on what we really want for Groton,” she said.
Respler Homes' 18-month lease, which was signed in November 2019 and allowed the developer access to the property, ended this month.
Kehrhahn said the state is not renewing the lease and Respler Homes did not push the state to do so because he said the company accomplished what it set out to do on the long-vandalized and vacant property, including securing the buildings, fixing the roofs and downspouts, and installing alarm systems.
"We know there are a significant number of moving pieces and considerations in this project, and after discussion between our team at DAS and Respler, there was a mutual agreement not to renew the lease at this time," state Department of Administrative Services spokesperson Lora Rae Anderson said.
Verizon pays $2,883.82 per month in rent, and Sprint $2,884.44 for the telecommunications facility on the property, Anderson said. The developer reported to the state that he spent $57,444.66 on management, repair and maintenance, fire, electric, insurance, landscaping and internet from July 2020 to February 2021.
State Department of Economic and Community Development spokesman Jim Watson said the DAS decision has no bearing on the purchase and sale agreement.
Respler Homes' vision for the site includes:
931 units on the Mystic Oral School site and adjacent acreage, including apartments and town homes
Renovation of the main oral school building for commercial and flexible working spaces
Trails down to the river
Potential renovation of the Pratt Building using Tax Increment Financing
Roadway upgrades, including a new access road from Cow Hill Road