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Massive Mystic project flouts sensible development

The Day on March 1 ran a guest commentary signed by all nine Groton town councilors arguing that the town “needs” a planned major residential redevelopment on bluffs overlooking the Mystic River. Many townspeople beg to differ.

Mystic River Bluffs, as the mega project is called, is the offering of Long Island developer Jeff Respler, whose website has featured mostly modular housing.

Respler’s 60-plus acre “live-work-play” creation would be anchored by 931 residential units and supplemented by shops and offices.

How big is 931 units? It’s 2.7 times the number of units in The Ledges, an expansive and imposing 339-unit apartment at 79 Drosdyk Drive, Groton. The 931 Respler units, if occupied, would likely bring in 2,000 residents, most with cars.

Planners today recognize that a community benefits far more by bringing mixed-use development into already developed areas in downtown settings than by sprawling out into undeveloped areas. However, the Respler proposal would bring heavy density to a quiet and semi-rural area.

It’s the 1950s-style downtown Groton that needs redevelopment.

The Respler complex would be built on land occupied by the abandoned Mystic Oral School for the Deaf. It ultimately would be sold to Respler Homes LLC, the now “exclusive developer,” in accordance with stipulations of the State’s Purchase and Sale Agreement with the company.

The Oral School (the name refers to lip reading) was founded in 1869. The state acquired it in 1921 and declared it surplus land in 2011. It’s also known as the Mystic Educational Center.

The Town Council’s commentary shows high expectations. The council believes MRB would become the town’s third largest taxpayer by attracting newly hired Electric Boat workers and bringing in current EB employees and others who work in Groton but live elsewhere. Other hoped-for opportunities are rehabilitation of Oral School structures to provide offices, a community swimming pool and a theater. Some 37 acres of green space would be retained by the state.

It’s hard to blame the council for being attracted by this vision, but serious questions of reality are being raised. One big one is whether Respler can afford to repair existing key structures, for example the recreational Pratt Building. Planning & Zoning Commission members have assigned low value to what they term mere “old buildings” that are questionable candidates for repair. Can the Respler-promised community swimming pool survive?

Below are specific areas of serious concern.

Size

The currently quiet neighborhoods surrounding MRB are semi-rural and rich in open space. Many residents and other lovers of the area see the Respler plan as a push toward shocking urbanization, incompatible with Mystic. Words like “behemoth” and “seismic” are used to describe the size of the project and the influx of people it would attract.

As one resident said, “Right now, I have wildlife. If this goes through, I’ll have night life.”

Would final approval of this giant — by local standards— inspire copycat mega developments elsewhere in Mystic?

Floating Zone

Respler’s plan would require a “floating zone.” This would replace existing rules with permissive zoning that allows the developer considerable freedom. At present, the developer would be allowed to incorporate 48 acres of land into the floating zone. This is the land Respler is slated ultimately to buy from the state for a dollar. In addition, he has purchased privately an abutting 16-plus acres, which he hopes to incorporate into the floating zone. In fact, the language of the Development Agreement between Groton and Respler encourages such acquisitions. It states: “The developer shall have the right to, at its sole discretion, acquire additional properties, including but not limited to properties abutting the (original) Property, to include in the project.”

If taken literally, this language would allow Respler to buy all of Mystic, with only the Planning & Zoning Commission to stop it. The P&Z commission, rather than the Town Council, has the veto. At present, it appears that Respler intends to build a new access street for the complex — routed through the 16 acres— with new houses. The only question — how many houses — depends on whether they’ll be incorporated into the floating zone or not. The P&Z appears to be leaning against incorporation.

Transparency

The selection of Respler as preferred builder was announced to the public Nov. 7, 2019. Names of other bidders responding to the town’s Request for Proposals were not released. Nor, later, was the Development Agreement, signed Feb. 4, 2020. It was left to a resident to file a Freedom of Information Act application and to shake loose, in January 2021, important documents and reveal them to the rightly aggrieved Planning and Zoning Commission.

Financing

The planned use of Tax increment financing (TIF ) would involve the town in helping finance construction. It would give the Respler group a financial incentive to promote tax-generating commercial development all along the hills above the Mystic River.

There’s a struggle in store.

Jim Furlong is a semi-retired journalist and a long-time conservationist. He lives in Mystic.

 

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