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Groton gives Mystic Education Center developer 30 days to fulfill obligations, or it will consider terminating agreement

Groton — The town said it is giving Respler Homes 30 days to fulfill obligations outlined in the development agreement for the Mystic Education Center — or the town will consider terminating the agreement with the developer.

Attorneys for the town and for Respler Homes recently exchanged letters and are at odds over each other’s responsibilities for the proposed redevelopment process outlined in the development agreement for the former Mystic Oral School property.

Respler Homes’ attorney had sent a letter on July 13 requesting that the town file a proposed zoning amendment application for the property “as soon as reasonably possible.” Without a zoning amendment, it said, the developer is at a "standstill" and cannot finalize its development plan. The attorney claimed the development agreement outlines that the town is responsible for changing its zoning regulations, "subject to reasonable conditions and approvals," for the project.

A town attorney responded in a letter Thursday to dispute Respler Homes' claims. The town attorney further asserted that Respler Homes has not provided information on aspects of the proposed development, as required in the development agreement, and is in default of the agreement.

Respler Homes has envisioned a mixed-use village for the property, with apartments to be built and the renovation of the main Mystic Oral School building as commercial and office space and the Pratt Building for town recreation use. The developer initially proposed about 700 to 850 apartments, but later envisioned about 931 residential units with the addition of adjacent acreage for proposed traffic improvements.

Respler Homes was chosen as the developer for the site, also called the Mystic Education Center, by a selection committee of both state and town representatives, after a request for proposals process. The town and state had jointly marketed the surplus, state-owned property that has been vacant since 2011.

Respler Homes signed a purchase and sale agreement with the state and a development agreement with the town, but needs zoning approvals to build on the site. The Planning and Zoning Commission recently said it would not initiate a floating zone and said it’s up to the developer to make a zoning application. The commission indicated it may consider slightly higher density than the current zone but not the scale of what Respler had envisioned.

Respler Homes’ letter

Attorney Gary B. O’Connor of Pullman & Comley, representing Respler Homes, wrote in the letter that the request for proposals notes a zoning amendment “will be needed to accomplish the stated objectives of the RFP.” He wrote that the development agreement says the town “shall be responsible for amending its Zoning Regulations to provide for and permit, subject to reasonable conditions and approvals” for a proposed project that includes about 700 to 850 apartments and a commercial building.

O’Connor said the town proposed a text amendment “after input from numerous stakeholders, including Respler Homes” but an application “has not even been filed, despite widespread discussions at Planning and Zoning Commission meetings and workshops about the Project.”

“Respler Homes has invested substantial resources on project designs, plans, environmental studies, surveys, and the acquisition of additional properties to address concerns of the Town,” O’Connor wrote. “It remains vested and excited about developing the Project. It is eager to make more investments to ensure the successful completion of the Project. But at this point, absent an approved zoning amendment, Respler Homes finds itself at a standstill. It cannot finalize its development plan or file applications for additional land use approvals and permits without a zoning amendment substantially similar to the Proposed Amendment.”

O’Connor said the delay is affecting Respler Homes’ “ability to satisfy its obligations under the Purchase and Sale Agreement between Respler Homes” and the state and to move forward with the project that it says is consistent with the request for proposals.

He also said “a great deal of misinformation” has been circulating about the proposal and Respler Homes believes the application needs to be filed “in order for the Planning and Zoning Commission to gain a complete and accurate understanding of the Project.”

Town’s response

Attorney Richard S. Cody of Suisman Shapiro, representing the town, refuted Respler Homes’ claims and said Respler Homes has not fulfilled its obligations for a preliminary development plan, as called for in the agreement. He said the town needed more information and “the finalization of the proposed zoning amendment was substantially delayed by Respler’s failure to approve and/or provide its position on various aspects of drafts of zoning regulations after the Town sought such input from Respler.”

Cody said a master plan submitted by the developer in November lacked items required in the agreement, including information about approximate locations of storm drainage improvements, utilities and easements, proposed subdivisions, a list of approvals needed and an anticipated timeline for the phasing of the project.

He also said the agreement described a project of 700 to 850 apartments, about 100,000 square feet of rentable space, and a recreation center, but the proposed project “grossly exceeded” those parameters with 931 apartments, 124,441 square feet of mixed-use space, plus the Pratt Building.

Cody also said Respler provided “raw data” about the need for tax increment financing, or TIF, for the project but not the required detailed information.

“Based on the Respler’s aforementioned failures, a Developer Default as defined in section 13.01 of the Agreement has occurred and continues to persist,” Cody wrote. “Please be advised that these defaults are susceptible to cure within 30 days of this notice.”

Respler Homes needs to provide the required information, or the town “will consider all applicable rights and remedies, including but not limited to the termination of the Agreement,” the letter states.

Cody also noted that community feedback has been negative over the past several months after community members discovered that Respler had pleaded guilty in 2004 to criminal charges.

“Fair or not under the circumstances, this discovery was unfortunate because it followed great efforts by (Groton’s Office of Planning and Development Services) staff to have Respler perform heavy public outreach, which staff perceived Respler had let gone fallow,” Cody wrote.

Planning

Groton Town Manager John Burt said Friday that the town has “important legal interests here” and he believes the town’s letter speaks for itself.

He added that he and the Town Council "continue to desire responsible development of that property, which balances the interests of the local residents with carefully planned development of the Town’s tax base and interests, many which are expressed through our Planning and Zoning Commission.”

The town notified the state Department of Economic and Community Development on Friday morning by email of the action it took, DECD spokesman Jim Watson said.

Developer Jeffrey Respler said Friday that Respler Homes sent the letter to respectfully request the town submit a text amendment application so there can be a meeting with the Planning and Zoning Commission in which Respler Homes could “present our case and see how to compromise and move forward.”

Respler said he has “utmost respect” for town staff but disagrees with the claims in the letter. He said Respler Homes has complied with the agreement, including by submitting a conceptual master development plan, proposed subdivision concepts, surveys, road layouts and TIF information.

He said he cannot submit a final master plan until the town has a zoning text amendment that shows what is allowed on the property, for example what building heights and what setbacks. He said this is the process called for in the agreement. He said final TIF numbers depend on questions that still need to be answered, such as what the town wants to do with the Pratt Building.

He said that while the town can suggest that there should have been more outreach or that his prior issues in New York, which recently surfaced, are to blame for its problems with the text amendment, the Planning and Zoning Commission started objecting to the project in the beginning of the year.

He said Respler Homes wants to continue to work with the town and have more communication.

“I’m hopeful an accommodation can be reached, and my company will be able to develop a project that the Town residents deserve,” he said.

k.drelich@theday.com

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