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    Sunday, July 21, 2024

    Groton goes back to earlier plan for vacant properties

    Groton ― The town can resume marketing its vacant properties, many of them in high demand due to the tremendous growth at Electric Boat, now that there’s a process in place to redevelop them.

    The new process, adopted by the Town Council on Monday with a 5-4 vote, is not the detailed one a committee has been working on for more than a year. It is instead a streamlined version the Town Council crafted in 2021.

    The town has more than 50 vacant properties, including several former schools that it would like to return to the tax rolls.

    The three-page document approved Monday was developed in 2021 to revise the procedure for disposing of town-owned properties. The divided council rejected the five-page document, with a 15-page appendix detailing a Request for Proposals process, that the Property Re-Use Committee (PRUC) recently completed.

    But the decision came over the objections of 18 residents, local officials and committee members who expressed their disappointment at Monday’s Town Council meeting ― some sharply criticizing the council ― and said the PRUC policy would provide more transparency and involve residents more in the process.

    Town Manager John Burt said the 2021 policy expands steps and community participation over the existing policy, but the proposed PRUC policy goes further in adding more steps and public participation.

    Residents speak out

    The effort to revamp the process followed a public outcry over a proposal to build a mixed-use village with apartments and a commercial hub at the Mystic Education Center, a state owned property.

    Neighbors raised objections to the developer’s background, as well as concerns about traffic, noise and blasting. The state canceled the sale of the property.

    Mystic resident Beth Tillman, who had opposed Mystic Education Center project, called the PRUC’s proposal “a starting point for empowering neighborhoods to have control over what directly affects them positively or negatively.”

    She called adopting the 2021 policy a “slap in the face.”

    She added, “We want to rein in a council bent on making this town uninhabitable with excess development of dense housing stock to meet a demand which will fade over time, as it has again and again at Electric Boat.”

    The submarine manufacturer plans to hire thousands of employees, peaking at 22,000 employees in 2033.

    Resident Zofia Baumann said she is familiar with Requests for Proposals, as she holds a PhD and applies for grant funding to do research and projects, and she supported the PRUC document. She said she doesn’t want properties sitting idle and wants the town to thrive, but there has to be a due process.

    Larry Dunn, Conservation Commission representative on the PRUC, pushed back against a comment that the PRUC was adding red tape. He said the committee added five simple items that are “basic governance requirements.”

    Adopted policy

    The adopted policy calls for the town manager to establish a Town Owned Property Evaluation Committee, which will meet from time to time to review town-owned properties and seek input from departments, agencies, boards and commissions, and consult with the town attorney before submitting a recommendation to the council.

    The council would refer “any recommendation for sale/disposition of the property to the Planning and Zoning Commission” and hold a public hearing. Under state law, they would hold a second hearing prior to final approval of the sale.

    If the council decides to sell or lease property, town staff will draft a Request for Proposals, with the Planning and Zoning Commission and the Representative Town Meeting having the opportunity to comment, among other steps.

    A background check, credit check and “an extensive Internet search” of companies and principals will be required.

    Rejected version

    The rejected version says the committee would include up to three councilors, two RTM members, up to three town staff, and liaisons from the Groton Housing Authority, and Conservation, Planning & Zoning, Inland Wetlands, Economic Development and Historic District Commissions. The committee will meet quarterly, or more frequently if needed.

    Town Councilor David McBride, PRUC chairman, said the 2023 document requires numerous public meetings.

    It also provides details regarding a required draft report, a time allotment for comments by town commissions, agencies, and others, and specifics regarding a final report to the council, all of which must occur prior to any council decisions, he said.

    The document has a 15-page appendix with details on the RFP process.

    Both policies include sections for if the town partners with the state on the redevelopment of non town-owned policies.

    Councilor concerns

    At the June 27 Town Council Committee of the Whole meeting, some councilors said the PRUC’s more detailed policy would provide more transparency and community involvement, which they said residents asked for.

    Other councilors raised concerns that the PRUC document would make it difficult for businesses to do much, if anything. They were also concerned about involving commissions, which are in charge of approval of projects, in the beginning would not provide the necessary “checks and balances” in the process.

    Councilor Scott Westervelt, a member of the PRUC, said hundreds of volunteer hours were spent to make a stronger policy.

    “It was strong enough to make sure that we had responsible developers coming in or responsible marketing for our properties,” he said, adding that the 2023 policy will not affect the town’s ability to market the properties.

    Councilor Edward Jacome said he thinks the PRUC document “is just too dense, and it’s just lined with a bunch of red tape that I think is going to dissuade developers.” He said the town needs to do its due diligence and vet developers, but the policy was too thick for him.

    Burt said the Town Council had worked the process in 2021, but the councilors’ terms were almost ending at that time, so the council decided to let the incoming council decide whether to adopt it. In 2022, under the new council, Mayor Juan Melendez Jr. formed the PRUC to suggest revisions to the council’s document.

    Councilor and PRUC member Portia Bordelon said in a statement that she made the referral because residents requested a “more transparent, accountable, accessible and predictable process through which the town government would actively and intentionally include the public” as much as possible.

    At the June 27 meeting, Councilor Rachael Franco said she worked on the 2021 document and spoke to residents and thinks it “represents our community and will do the best for us.”

    Monday’s votes

    After attempts to send the 2021 policy to a Committee of the Whole meeting to be worked on, or replace the 2021 goals with the PRUC’s goals, didn’t garner enough votes, the Council voted 5-4 on Monday to adopt the 2021 policy and direct the administration to market the properties.

    Councilors Jacome, Bruce Jones, Juliette Parker, Franco, Melinda Cassiere, who resigned Tuesday, voted in favor, while councilors Bordelon, McBride, Westervelt, and Melendez voted against it.

    k.drelich@theday.com

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