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    Tuesday, August 09, 2022

    Groton Town Council votes to discontinue efforts to pursue agreement with data center developer

    Groton — After residents spoke out at meetings and councilors debated, a data center proposal for land south of Interstate 95 is not moving forward.

    The Town Council voted late Tuesday to discontinue "all efforts to pursue a municipal host fee agreement" with data center developer NE Edge LLC "for properties generally located between Hazelnut Hill Road and Flanders Road, south of I-95, with prejudice.”

    Town Councilors Portia Bordelon, Aundré Bumgardner, Melinda Cassiere, Bruce Jones and Juan Melendez Jr., the town mayor, were in favor of the motion, while Councilor Rachael Franco was opposed, and Councilors David McBride, Juliette Parker and Scott Westervelt abstained.

    Bumgardner said he "heard a resounding no from the public" and made a motion that added the verbiage “with prejudice," which he said meant “indefinitely” or “for good.” He thanked the public for helping him do his homework on data centers.

    According to the Town Council’s rules, an item can come back to the council if six members agree to it within the next year, Town Manager John Burt said. Another motion, which did not pass, was similar but likely would have required only five councilors to bring it back to the council.

    Councilors discussed at length how to proceed and made several motions before the final motion passed. At times, they sharply disagreed with one another and there were calls for order and decorum. Some councilors said they wanted more time to review information and to make sure the resolution was properly worded.

    A potential resolution prepared for Tuesday's meeting had referenced that the council determined that "351 Flanders Road and surrounding properties are not a suitable location for a data center," but Burt said the town on Tuesday received correspondence from the property owner's attorney questioning whether the council can determine a certain property is not suitable for a particular use when that's typically under the Planning and Zoning Commission's purview. Burt said there wasn't time to have a full review by the town's attorneys, but they said it would be safer to use a resolution without mentioning the property use.

    NE Edge, under manager Thomas Quinn, had requested a municipal host fee agreement with the town, which is the first step before a developer seeks land use approvals and sets the criteria for the data center proposal and how much revenue the town would receive in lieu of taxes.

    NE Edge sent a memorandum Friday that requested the town withdraw the agreement that was under consideration and instead allow NE Edge time to reach out to neighbors and hold a public meeting next month, then submit a revised proposal. NE Edge said it agreed to a list of changes, including removing a third proposed data center building and instead distributing its footprint into the two remaining planned buildings; increasing the amount of land to be donated to the town; and paying an additional annual fee in year five that would benefit Ella T. Grasso Technical and Robert E. Fitch high schools. NE Edge said it would pay an annual fee of $3.5 million, plus escalation, to the town.

    Melendez said Friday that he received the memorandum but the council was proceeding with Tuesday's already scheduled meeting to vote on whether to end negotiations with NE Edge.

    After the vote, Quinn said Wednesday that it's "too soon to respond with next step specifics."

    "We have interest in the general area for development, and we'll be looking at every option," he said. "The council with this vote turned down the site, a likely very noticeable reduction in ratepayer utility bills for 30 years, the $105 million plus escalators and about $7.2 million for schools. We will keep you informed for our next public informational meeting."

    The state passed legislation last year to urge data centers to locate in Connecticut by providing 20- to 30-year tax incentives if the developer or owner makes the required investment.

    The town has an existing host fee agreement with Gotspace Data Partners LLC for land off Route 117.

    Councilors debate

    Jones, who is also a Flanders Road resident, said he spent a lot of time listening and learning, including walking the property and talking to both sides. He visited four data centers in New York and New Jersey and found that three buildings emitted three different types of noise.

    Regarding the Groton proposal, he said he “cannot support these buildings or this agreement as it stands.”

    Cassiere said that until noise reduction issues can be studied by an expert, she “cannot subject affected neighbors to a building that could potentially create an unlivable environment.”

    “At this time, I do not think we have successfully rendered an agreement that protects the neighbors,” she added. “There are other completely understandable concerns. However, many of those concerns may be under the purview of planning and zoning or inland or wetlands, and I want to make it clear that we need good development in Groton to build our grand list, to unburden our taxpayers and to ensure a prosperous future for our children. As a parent, supporting appropriate development will be a priority for me. However, there are just too many questions about this host fee agreement at this time.”

    Parker said that since there were concerns about receiving new information on Friday and Tuesday, she favored postponing to give everyone time to review the information and confirm they were proceeding properly.

    Franco said she is not opposed to data centers in general but has major concerns about sound and if the council were voting on the agreement tonight, she would vote no. She also explained that the council is a legislative body, not a regulatory body that deals with issues such as wetlands.

    Franco said this is the first time the councilors really are having a conversation about the data center. She added that "it may not be popular to say, but our first time that we may have had an opportunity to discuss this, what we're saying to businesses that come to us asking for something — whether we say yes or no to it — is that 'no, we don't want to talk to you, go away,' and I'm just simply saying this is the message that Groton is sending right now." She also favored postponing so the town could get the terminology right in the motion.

    Bordelon raised concerns about the overall process: "We need to slow down, relook at our process here and figure out ways to make sure we're properly engaging with the councilors and the community," she said.

    She also requested public comment on the changes Quinn recently made and asked about how it's decided to hold a special meeting. Melendez said the mayor can call a special meeting, and Burt said there is nothing improper about it.

    Both Bumgardner and Bordelon also said they did not feel comfortable having conversations with the developer outside of public meetings. Quinn said he reached out to most councilors to have discussions with them. Bumgardner said he was not contacted and Bordelon said she did not respond.

    Westervelt said he met with the developer to hear directly from him and also spoke to neighbors who have differing opinions. He said he's doing the best he can to get as much information as possible and was in favor of postponing a vote to allow councilors to get more information and try to get answers.

    "I want more information," he said. "I want to know more about this so I will be abstaining because if I can't do my job fully, I just won't vote."

    McBride reiterated that the council should incorporate comments from the public and councilors and make changes to a community host agreement, independent of the current developer and location, so the town would be prepared if it were to desire a data center in the future. He said he wanted to be clear that he's not saying he's in support of the current location and not saying he's in support of the developer.

    "I'm simply saying that more work needs to be done before any long-terms decisions can be completed, and therefore I will be abstaining from this vote tonight because we're continuing to rush the process where we shouldn’t be," McBride said.

    k.drelich@theday.com

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