Mystic Oral School Advocates protest sale of property
Groton ― A group of residents is voicing opposition to the state about the state’s proposed sale of the Mystic Education Center, also known as the Mystic Oral School.
Edward E. Moukawsher, attorney for the Mystic Oral School Advocates, sent a letter to Gov. Ned Lamont and Attorney General William Tong on Sept. 28.
The state has a contract with Respler Homes LLC. to sell the property — signed in 2019 and extended last year — and the state Department of Economic and Community Development has said that it does not have an option to end the contract.
“MOSA urges reconsideration of any transfer of the property under the circumstances and intends to see that the statutes and our constitutional protections are observed,” Moukawsher wrote in the three page letter dated Sept. 28.
Moukawsher argues in the letter that: “Neither the newly involved party nor the proposed development have been approved by the state entities required by statute for the sale of surplus state property.”
Respler Homes did not immediately have a comment and said it would need to read the letter.
In January, Respler Homes said it has an agreement to sell Respler Homes to Blue Lotus Group, which has announced that it has plans “to bring forward a vision for an active-adult, independent and assisted living community.”
DECD Commissioner David Lehman has said the state told Respler Homes that the state has a contract with Respler Homes, so if it sells the property, it would be to Respler, not another party. Lehman said the $1 sale price of the Mystic Education Center is due to the significant remediation and money required to clean up the property.
Respler Homes’ proposal for a mixed-use development with multifamily housing, a commercial hub in the main Oral School building, and the renovation of the Pratt Building into a recreation center for the town was chosen in 2019 after a request for proposals process.
The Planning and Zoning Commission came to a consensus last year that it would not support a zone change that would allow that level of density on the property.
Separately, the town has a development agreement with Respler Homes, but has had mediation sessions with the company concerning a dispute over the development agreement, and the town has been seeking to end the agreement.
In a statement Friday, Hem Rathod and Adi Jha, principals of Blue Lotus Group, said: “Blue Lotus Group, LLC is not a party to the legal mediation process that the Town of Groton has been working through regarding the development of the Mystic Education Center (MEC), and it would not be appropriate for us to comment on the letter at this time.
“We are eager and hopeful for the chance to begin a conversation with the people of Groton and their town officials about the future of this beautiful property, and work collaboratively with full transparency to redevelop the MEC in a way that fits the size and heritage of the property, generates revenue for the town, enhances the area and satisfies Groton and Mystic residents. We hope that time comes soon.”
Moukawsher said residents are calling the governor and state legislators with concerns.
Steven Spellman, a retired state Superior Court judge who lives in Noank, paid for a full page advertisement in Sunday’s edition of The Day because his letter was too long to publish as an op-ed.
The letter, titled “An open letter to Governor Ned Lamont,” called on the governor to stop the sale. Spellman, who is not a member of the Mystic Oral School Advocates, said residents have been contacting him since the publication of the advertisement and he is encouraging them to call the governor. He also recently has been in touch with MOSA.
In a statement Friday evening, Jeffrey Respler, principal of Respler Homes, said Spellman’s letter has inaccuracies.
Respler said the Mystic Education Center is “being transferred for a dollar because of complex environmental issues that will cost millions of dollars to address, exceeding the value of the land. There are enormous costs associated with the abatement, demolition and restoration of the buildings located on the property as some contain hazardous building materials and others have been significantly damaged by vandalism and the weather. Some of the buildings are realistically beyond repair. There also are complex environmental issues that have to be addressed, which will cost millions of dollars.”
Respler also said Respler Homes will buy the property from the state as required by the contract and has not assigned his membership interest to Blue Lotus.
When reached for comment, the governor's office declined to offer details on the Lamont administration's decision-making process.
“The governor’s office assures the people of Groton that we take this matter seriously and are reviewing it thoroughly, but cannot comment in greater detail at this moment," Lamont spokesperson Anthony Anthony said in a statement.
Elizabeth Benton, spokesperson for Attorney General William Tong, said the office has "received the letter" from Moukawsher and is reviewing it.
She did not comment on whether Tong would have the authority to delay or stop the sale.
State Rep. Christine Conley, D-Groton, was also copied on the letter. Conley has been opposed to the sale of the property to Respler since the idea was first proposed. She said she thought the project was too dense for the neighborhood and is happy the Planning and Zoning Commission never changed the zoning for that lot.
"I've never had a vote, or an ability to vote on this project, but I would not have voted for this project," Conley added.
The General Assembly does not have the power to review and approve or deny this purchase.
"Respler has that decision on whether they want to walk away before the deadline on Nov. 13," Conley said. "Or, the Governor has a decision: Is he going to cancel the purchase and sale agreement?"
Conley didn't say whether she'd be supportive of Lamont canceling the agreement, because, she said, "I'm not the Governor ... He's the only person with the ability to cancel it."
State Sen. Heather Somers said she sent a letter to the Attorney General last week — before Moukwasher’s letter — and asked Tong to weigh in on “some of the issues that were brought to light from Steve Spellman’s advertisement.” She asked for Tong’s opinion on “whether this was going forward legally, and if it did in fact violate these public acts.”
Tong’s office has seen the letter, but has yet to respond to its content, Somers said.
Somers reiterated that Respler’s plan for development requires a local zoning change, and Planning & Zoning has yet to approve it.
“He takes the risk of having to clean up the property that he can’t build on until it’s cleaned up,” Somers said. “There’s significant environmental issues on that property. I understand people are upset with the dollar price tag … but it would take millions of dollars to clean up that property.”
“I think the best thing that could happen is for this to not proceed, and for the state and the town to go back out with a new RFP after this is closed out,” Somers said. “I don’t know if that’s possible because of the contract the state has signed and the town has signed.”
Town Mayor Juan Melendez, Jr. said in a statement that: “Unfortunately the Town of Groton is not a party to the contract because it’s state-owned land. In any case, I would urge the Governor to listen to the residents of Groton, as they have made their wishes clear.”
Town Councilor Rachael Franco also said in a statement that she would encourage the governor and attorney general “to look into the concerns that have been brought forward in recent letters regarding the sale of the Mystic Education Center.”
A group of about 15 residents stood outside the Thrive 55+ Active Living Center before Tuesday’s Town Council Committee of the Whole meeting with signs in opposition to the Mystic Education Center or about the living conditions at Branford Manor in the city. Signs about the Mystic Education Center included “Restrict Mystic Oral School Development” and “Reasonable Mystic Oral School Development.”
“A lot of people’s concerns are Respler will get a huge piece of land, a very expensive piece of land ― 40 to 47 acres ― for a dollar,” said Jim Furlong, who held a sign that said “Stop the Giveaway.”
“It should go back to the point where we ask for bids,” said Mary Ellen Furlong, his wife, who held a sign that said “Stop the Scam.”
Tuesday’s Town Council Committee of the Whole meeting had an agenda item for an update on the Mystic Education Center and said, “The Town Council will be discussing the latest developments concerning the property sale.”
Eric Callahan, attorney for the town, said during his update to the town that the town is not a party to the purchase and sale contract, so the town doesn’t have the ability to have a say in it, though the council can provide an opinion on it.
“It’s really between the state and Respler Homes as to whether they close,” Callahan said.