State plans to end agreement for Mystic Education Center on Oct. 14, town considers next steps
Groton ― Department of Economic and Community Development Commissioner David Lehman said the state plans to officially terminate the purchase and sale agreement with Respler Homes for the Mystic Education Center on Oct.14.
Lehman sent a letter Tuesday to Jeffrey Respler, principal of Respler Homes, LLC with a 10-day notice of the termination of the 2019 agreement that would have allowed Respler Homes to purchase the state-owned property, also called the Mystic Oral School.
Lehman wrote in the letter that under a state law concerning the remediation of state-owned and formerly state-owned brownfields, DECD is limited to selling properties that have permits and been cleaned of environmental contamination. The Mystic Education Center site does not comply with these requirements, he said.
Attorney Edward Moukawsher, a lawyer representing the Mystic Oral School Advocates, a group of neighbors and residents opposed to the development, had recently sent a letter to Gov. Ned Lamont and Attorney General William Tong that raised concerns with the state process. Lamont announced Monday that he was directing the DECD to terminate the agreement. Moukawsher’s letter and Noank resident Steven Spellman’s letter to Lamont, which ran as an advertisement in The Day, both discussed the satte law concerning brownfields.
Respler reached by The Day Tuesday, said Respler Homes is hoping for a meeting with the state. Respler’s attorney, Gary O’Connor, said Wednesday that “we were somewhat baffled by the announcement” and his client believes he has a binding contract with the state and expects to close on the property.
O’Connor said the purchase agreement was vetted “by a whole host of departments and agencies,” including the DECD, Office of Policy and Management, the state property review board and the attorney general’s office “so we will certainly follow up with the state to figure things out.” He said he couldn’t comment on the termination letter until he has an opportunity to discuss it with his client, who is observing the Yom Kippur holiday.
“We certainly want to continue moving forward and maintain a very amicable relationship with the state so we think it’s probably in everyone's best interest to schedule a meeting and sit down and discuss the issues,” O’Connor added.
Town response, next steps
Anthony Anthony, a spokesperson for Lamont, said the administration is working through the next steps for the property.
“The state of Connecticut looks forward to working with the Town of Groton on a suitable development that cleans up this site and restores the property to productive use in the future,” Anthony said in a statement Wednesday.
DECD Spokesperson Jim Watson said his agency “will be evaluating options in the coming months.”
Separate from the purchase and sale agreement between Respler Homes and the state, the town has a development agreement, signed with Respler Homes, in 2020. The town and Respler Homes have been in dispute over the agreement and participated in mediation sessions.
Respler Homes’ original proposal for a mixed-use village for young professionals, including apartments, a commercial hub in the main Oral School building, and the restoration of the Pratt Building as a recreation center was selected 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 for the site due to the high density of development. Respler Homes said in January that it had an agreement to sell Respler Homes to Blue Lotus Group LLC, which has announced plans to “to bring forward a vision for an active-adult, independent and assisted living community.”
Moukawsher sent an Oct. 4 letter to the Town Council and town manager, calling for the town to return to mediation and pursue the termination of the development agreement between Respler Homes and the town.
Town Manager John Burt said Wednesday the Town Council will need to discuss the agreement prior to determining any possible next steps. He expects the agreement will be on the agenda for either the council’s Oct. 11 or Oct. 25 meeting.
The Day reached out to town councilors this week with questions following the governor’s announcement.
“The Governor certainly earned a lot of goodwill in the Town of Groton,” Town Mayor Juan Melendez, Jr. said in a statement. He said the development agreement is still in place. He’s waiting on counsel from the town attorney, but doesn’t see any way forward other than canceling the agreement.
Town Councilor Rachael Franco said in a statement that she is “happy the Governor acknowledged concerns and listened to the residents in Southeastern CT when deciding upon the termination of the purchase and sales agreement for the Mystic Education Center.” Franco said the town is in mediation with Respler Homes to end the development agreement.
“Once we know more about the state’s actions related to the termination, I believe there will be a better sense on how to move forward,” she said. “The Town Council will need to decide the best path forward.”
“All neighborhoods matter to those of us who reside here, and I thank Governor Lamont for terminating the $1 sale of Mystic Oral School,” Town Councilor Aundré Bumgardner said in a statement. “Together we showed the power of a passionate and educated citizenry unwilling to sacrifice their ethical compass, environment, and quality of life in Groton."
Bumgardner called for the town to “deliberate openly, and include citizen participation, especially the Mystic neighborhoods directly impacted by development when issuing the next RFP (request for proposals)."
Town Councilor Juliette Parker said, “It’s the state’s decision, as they are the property owners, and I was waiting to see what was going to happen between the state and Respler, so I know that we’re looking at what the termination clause (with the state) was, and I think all of us as a Council have to vote on what’s going to happen next because I think we have to go through the process of everything and ensure that we’re doing everything correctly.”
Town Councilor Portia Bordelon said in a statement Wednesday that she appreciates that the governor validated the community’s concerns. She supports Moukawsher’s recommendations to reopen the mediation sessions with a goal of properly completing the termination of the development agreement as soon as possible.
“I look forward to working with the Lamont Administration on creating opportunities for more community involvement to determine future possibilities,” she said.
She added that she and councilors David F. McBride Jr. and Westervelt are working on the Town Council Property Re-Use Committee “to establish a more inclusive, comprehensive, predictable, transparent and accessible process through which any town-owned or town-partnered property would pass.”
In response to the governor’s announcement, McBride said he is very excited for the town.
As far as the development agreement, he said that, in his opinion, any development agreement that hinges upon a specific piece of property is worthless, if they don’t purchase the property within the date that the development agreement expires.
“If the Town Council would like to take an action to formalize something to make the development agreement null and void, they certainly can, however I don't believe it is necessary,” said McBride.
Westervelt, who also is a co-chair of the Mystic Oral School Advocates, said he was “cautiously optimistic” after hearing the governor’s announcement because “terminate” means to stop but “pause” leaves it open.
As far as the development agreement, he said “I feel that the town has done all it is contractually obligated to do including participating in the mediation. At this point, I feel there’s no reason to continue the relationship with Respler Homes LLC with respect to the Developer’s Agreement.”
Westervelt called for an “after-action critique.”
“We need to invite ideas and listen to what the citizens want and see how that can be accomplished with eye on a reasonable development of the property,“ he added.
Moukawsher said by phone on Tuesday that he and the Mystic Oral School Advocates are grateful for the governor’s decision. He added that “hopefully we’ve learned a few lessons about process,” and he said one of the first things that needs to happen is the restoration of trust between people in the public that have been affected by the proposal and the Town Council and town administration.
“I think that’s a process that both sides have to work on because you need an atmosphere of trust and mutual respect to go forward to take the steps that are going to be necessary to come up with a sensible and appropriate use of the property,” he said. “I think we have to get back to working together. It’s been a prolonged period of division over this so I think that’s the first step.”