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Groton, Respler begin negotiations; developer's letter released

Groton — The town and Respler Homes have begun their "good faith" negotiations, while the town also made public the letter it received last month from the developer calling for the dispute resolution process.

The first meeting in the ongoing negotiations between the town and the developer hoping to build a mixed-use development on the state-owned Mystic Education Center property took place Tuesday, according to Town Manager John Burt and Respler Homes developer Jeffrey Respler.

Negotiation is the first step for the developer and town to try to come to a resolution for their dispute. The development agreement requires the negotiations to be kept confidential, and a date for the next meeting has not been set yet, Burt said.

The town has argued that Respler Homes is in default of the agreement, which both parties signed in February 2020, because the developer has not provided all required information for the proposed project. Respler Homes argues that it is not in default and cannot provide more detailed information until the town sets the property's zoning.

The town on Tuesday also released the letter that Respler Homes' attorney Gary B. O'Connor of Pullman & Comley sent on Aug. 17, which outlines Respler's argument that it "has satisfied its obligations to date." The developer "invokes its dispute resolution rights" and requests the negotiations.

O'Connor wrote that the agreement includes provisions for "changes in economic and real estate conditions" and provisions for "cooperation and mutual assistance."

He said Respler Homes has worked from the beginning with the town and state to resolve the "enormous challenges" on the property, which "is burdened with hazardous building materials, extensive environmental conditions, buildings that are in serious disrepair and title and survey issues." He said the town had not "ever suggested that Respler was in default of the Agreement, until Respler requested the Town to move forward with the necessary text amendment to the zoning regulations."

O'Connor said Respler Homes remains committed to the project despite the "enormous project challenges, as well as the unprecedented issues created by the pandemic." He further argued that Respler Homes has provided information but some aspects cannot be fully addressed until the town has a text amendment creating a floating zone for the property.

O'Connor also proposed language to make it clear that a "critical path timeline" for the project begins when the developer receives the governmental approvals, and the hope is to receive a zoning text amendment and a master plan, zone change and first phase site plan within a year.

The letter was in response to a letter from the town — which itself followed a letter from O'Connor requesting a zoning text amendment application — that said Respler Homes has failed to provide detailed information and had 30 days to do so or the town would consider terminating the agreement. In the town's letter, attorney Richard S. Cody of Suisman Shapiro said Respler needs to provide details on tax increment financing and approximate locations of such things as utilities, roads and easements.

Town officials at first declined to release the developer's Aug. 17 letter.

Attorney Edward E. Moukawsher, who represents neighbors and people opposed to the project, had sent the town an Aug. 24 letter on behalf of Rosanne Kotowski that argued the letter was a public document. He said he would file an appeal with the Freedom of Information Commission and seek civil penalties if the town "persists in depriving the public of access to this document, and if the Town Councilors do not reverse this decision." 

Moukawsher said he express mailed on Tuesday morning a complaint to the Freedom of Information Commission, which is now moot because the town has released the letter.

Burt said the complaint did not have any bearing on the decision to release the letter. He said he had already spoken to the Freedom of Information Commission and felt the town's attorney had solid reasons for why the letter was exempt from FOI laws. Burt said he initially planned on releasing the letter, but the town's attorneys were concerned about doing so while in this legal process.

But he said after further discussion, they agreed to the release.  

"While the letter is not subject to FOIA, I believe the benefit of releasing the letter outweighs any potential downside," said Burt, adding that he does not have any comments on the letter.

Respler also said he does not have comments to add, as negotiations are ongoing.

k.drelich@theday.com

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