The Day – Legislators hear from residents about Mystic Education Center

Groton — At least two lawmakers have been inundated with questions from residents for and against the Mystic Education Center proposal, and a city council member says she is withdrawing support for the project.

Respler Homes, chosen as developer for the vacant, state-owned land, has proposed a mixed-use village with apartments, the preservation of the main Mystic Oral School building with office and commercial spaces, and the possible renovation of the Pratt building for recreational use by the city.

The Spatial Planning Commission recently reached a consensus that it would not create a floating zone that would provide a path for redevelopment on its current scale. Instead, it is up to the developer to submit an application to the committee.

While it’s a decision for local officials, Senator Heather Somers, R-Groton, said she’s heard from hundreds of residents who don’t support the proposal in its current size.

State Representative Christine Conley, D-Groton, said she has heard from residents who like the proposed development as they seek more tax-listed properties, more housing options for people and families to move to Groton and the renovation of the swimming pool and other public areas. She has also heard from immediate neighbors who are concerned about the proposal, including density, impact on traffic and how water and sewage services would be provided.

Legislators weigh in

Conley said that when the city and state looked at proposals, she publicly backed a smaller proposal. She thought Respler Homes’ original proposal was too compact for the area. She appreciates that the committee has recently clarified that it will not change the zoning of the site to allow for the density requested in the original proposal.

She said she has not seen any new proposal to take a position on it. But she said her role as a legislator is to help with issues that arise, such as how to handle traffic and how to deal with clearing the property.

State Representative Joe de la Cruz, D-Groton, said he is “100% for the project”, but he is sensitive to the concerns of neighbors and understands that they need to be involved in the discussions and that the project needs to be the right size. to have. He said he thinks there could be a compromise, and it’s too valuable a piece of land to leave untouched.

He also pointed out that vacant properties on one side of the city tend to be developed, while properties on the other side of the city seem to become open spaces or gardens, such as the former Noank School. “It’s kind of a matter of fairness for me,” he said.

He said he thinks the development will provide the type of housing that millennials like and help businesses, with people taking an Uber or perhaps a shuttle bus to downtown Mystic.

He said if left undeveloped the property could become like Seaside in Waterford.

“I think people really need to start thinking in those terms: that this could be a brownfield in 20 years, and I think now is the time,” he said.

Somers said it is not the legislator’s role to interfere in a city council decision, but she is deeply concerned. She said she was concerned about the proposed size of the development, the developer and his background, and the environmental issues at the site.

Jeffrey Respler, the lead member of Respler Homes LLC, pleaded guilty to four counts of fifth-degree conspiracy charges, a Class A felony, in New York in 2004 when he was the head of a plumbing company. A lawyer representing several Groton residents sent a letter to the city regarding the charges.

The New York City Department of Investigation alleges that Respler paid bribes to two employees in New York City, paid one person to use a plumber’s license in false documents, and submitted statements that “falsely alleging that he paid the proper wages for the hours they worked.” There was also an alleged “fraudulent real estate transaction” between him and the plumbers’ union.

Respler has denied the allegations, saying that his payments to workers, the real estate transaction and his company’s relationship with the plumber were correct, and that an employee of the company made loans to city employees that Respler had no knowledge of. But Respler said he pleaded guilty to running out of money and was told the investigation would continue.

Somers said she has contacted the State Department of Economic and Community Development, which has a purchase and sale agreement with Respler, and the State Department of Administrative Services, which had a maintenance agreement with Respler that was not renewed, for information and to continue. talk to them.

She said the decision for the redevelopment is between three parties: the city, the state and Respler.

She said people have told her that they have tried to address their development issues with the city council, but feel that the city is not listening to them. She said she admires the Planning and Zoning Commission for its recent decision.

“I’ve been approached by many, many individuals, and I’ve encouraged them to get in touch with their city councilors and local city leaders,” she said.

City councilor calls for ‘pause’

In 2019, a selection committee with representatives from both the state and the city chose Respler Homes as the preferred developer for the property after a proposal submission process.

Last year, the city council approved a development agreement with Respler Houses. The nine councilors, all Democrats, also expressed support for the project in a March commentary in The Day.

But Councilor Portia Bordelon said she no longer supports the project.

Bordelon said that when she first joined the council, the process had begun and she learned about it along the way. She decided to withdraw her support because a lot ‘wasn’t right’. When the developer’s previous criminal charges came to light, she said she realized the developers were not properly vetted and that a criminal background check should be part of the process. She emphasized that a criminal background should not exclude a developer, but that the city should be aware of this and should not learn about it from voters.

Bordelon also believes that local residents should have been involved in the process earlier. “I really believe that people should be brought around the table,” she said.

She thinks it’s time to “take a break” and hold the developer accountable for deadlines. She encouraged her fellow councilors to speak publicly and consider withdrawing their support.

Other councilors said the city has a contract with the developer, with the ball now in its court to file for a planning and zoning review.

The city council could not vote to leave the agreement without sufficient reason, according to the agreement, city manager John Burt said.

He said the city is reviewing and discussing the process and vetting of the request for proposals.

Councilor Lian Obrey said it is now up to Respler to return to the city with drawings of the proposed project. She said that the responsibility also lies with the state, which has an agreement to sell the property to the developer for $1, provided certain conditions are met. The agreement was extended in the spring until November 2022.

“The state owns the property, so we’re just in a holding pattern,” Obrey said. “I don’t think now is the right time to make a decision.”

Regarding the developer’s previous conviction, she said, “I don’t want to be influenced by someone who digs into someone’s past.”

Mayor Patrice Granatosky said the city has a contract with the developer, but that’s all she can say at the moment. “We must take into account what our lawyer advised us in this case.”

During a city council meeting in May during which the council received public comments about the Mystic Education Center, city attorney Eric Callahan advised the council not to respond to the comments that evening due to potential legal ramifications.

Councilor Conrad Heede also said he couldn’t say whether he currently supports or opposes the project, but said the council was instructed by voters four years ago to put the vacant properties back on the tax lists. The proposal has since gone through the process, with the Planning Commission essentially bringing the project to an end on its original scale.

“Right now I think the neighborhood has spoken, and the city will have to wait and see, and see what the state and Respler come up with and what Planning and Zoning (Commission) will approve, if anything, and go from there,” he said. he.

k.drelich@theday.com

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