GROTON — Red and white “Restrict Mystic Oral School Development” lawn signs dot the neighborhood surrounding a 77-acre property, accessible by a narrow curving road bordered by trees and stone walls, where developer Jeff Respler once said he would build 750 apartments, and now plans 931 after purchasing an additional 16 acres.
Respler’s vision for the Mystic River Bluffs development at 240 Oral School Road includes rehabbing the decrepit school buildings, which the state closed in 2011, into retail, restaurant and office space and renovating the Pratt building’s Olympic-size pool, theatre space and gymnasium into a public recreation center.
The project is not significantly closer to moving forward than it was in November 2019 at its initial unveiling, said Jon Reiner, director of planning and development for the town.
Reiner told CT Examiner that the town had not yet received an application from Respler Homes LLC.
“I believe most of Groton has never been exposed to a public redevelopment project where a concept is floated well ahead of any detailed plans or applications,” explained Paige Bronk, economic and community development manager for Groton.
Nearby property owners are typically notified when an application has been submitted and that the matter will appear on the agenda of various boards and commissions, said Bronk.
But Bronk said that the project is “very, very different” because the property in this case is owned by the state.
“The state is selling the property. All the legal agreements are between the state and Respler. Nothing’s been applied for [with the town]. We haven’t even started and I think those individuals who have concerns believe the project is much further along than it really is,” said Bronk.
The idea of constructing 931 new apartments in the neighborhood, with or two cars for every unit, pushed John Westervelt to form a group opposing the project. Westervelt has lived near the school on Boulder Court since 1984 and raised his three children there.
“I don’t want to leave, I don’t see any reason why I should be forced out of my family home,” he told CT Examiner.
He is one of the founders of Mystic Oral School Advocates, a group that has “come together for the purpose of minimizing the size of the potential development of the Mystic Oral School property.” The group’s goals are to scale back or eliminate Respler’s plan and to “ensure any zoning changes for the Mystic Oral School property reflect the rural nature of the area.”
Westervelt said the group has grown to about 110 local residents, with weekly meetings since last November or December, “basically to discuss what’s going on or what’s been done over the past week and also if there are upcoming town council or Economic Development Commission or Planning and Zoning Commission meetings. We make sure everybody is aware of those, so we can make sure that various folks from our group are speaking at all of these meetings.”
Westervelt said the group is working to preserve the current [RU-80] rural zoning for the Oral School property, with a minimum lot size of 1.84 acres and a maximum building height of 30 feet.
Asked what might be an acceptable type of development, he said, “Keeping it at RU-80 — having 25 or 30 houses would be okay.”
Westervelt said he was concerned that once the project started coming together it would be too late to stop.
“Everybody is terrified that by the time Jon Reiner and Jeff Respler put the paperwork together with the Planning and Zoning Commission, it’s going to be too late for us to do anything,” he said. “We’ve really not taken any legal action, however, we do have a lawyer prepared to do that.”
A change in zoning
Before Respler can present plans to the Planning and Zoning Commission, the property will require the town to allow for mixed use. Mystic River Bluffs, as Respler envisions it, would require a floating zone, an alternative to traditional zoning that provides the town and a developer increased flexibility to include a mix of different uses.
Reiner said the town had started working on a zoning text amendment well over a year ago for this property, but hadn’t made progress.
“It was a staff-driven initiative that included looking at the concept plans and working and talking and going back and forth with the Planning and Zoning Commission. The last time that staff met with the Planning and Zoning Commission to specifically go over that particular new zoning text amendment, the commission wanted substantial changes.”
Reiner said it appeared that the opinions of the Planning and Zoning Commission had shifted on several ideas, including lessening the importance of preserving the Pratt building and the Oral School building.
“They felt that the density that was being proposed was too much on the site whereas previously they told us at a meeting that they wanted provisions in there to allow for more density.”
Reiner said he hoped to organize a text amendment workshop for the project with the Planning and Zoning Commission in the month of June.
Respler has also said that he is in favor of Tax Increment Financing, or TIF, for the project — a strategy that would harness future property tax revenues — but Reiner said that nothing has been set up because an application has not yet been filed.
The 77-acre property includes four buildings totalling about 175,000 square feet, and the Platt Recreation building which includes an Olympic-sized swimming pool, an auditorium or theatre, bowling lanes, a gymnasium, racket courts, and a weight room.
The Mystic Oral School for the Deaf moved from Ledyard to the Groton property in 1872. In 1921 the state acquired the property and assumed supervision of the school. The state closed the school in 1980 and allowed a range of athletic, nonprofit, and training programs to use the facility, according to the Groton Economic Development Commission site. In 2011, the state closed the campus and sought to sell the property.
Respler said that he first learned about the property when the town solicited redevelopment proposals in December 2017 based on a 2016 feasibility analysis which supported “mixed use, restaurants, hotels, higher quality retail, multifamily residential, and others.”
Competing proposals by Groton Housing Authority Partnership, Stackstone Group, and Globe Developers ranged from 192 luxury and market-rate apartments and townhomes, and a 72 to 100 unit apartment development that would restore the existing buildings and include a recreation center for community use, to a plan to establish a private boarding school using the existing structures in addition to residential housing.
Respler was selected as the “preferred developer,” Bronk said, after a vetting of the proposal by a joint town and state committee review process.
“But let me characterize what preferred developer means — it just means that out of proposals that were submitted, this is the best one, the most likely to actually get the project done, the one that has experienced and completed a project. The one that has the best idea, the best financing, the best economic return to the town and also the state, with overall community benefits,” said Bronk. “It doesn’t mean that the project will happen. It doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s guaranteed to occur the way that it was proposed. It just means that of the proposals, this was the best of the best, and the other ones were deemed less desirable.”
Reiner said that “preferred developer status” has allowed Respler to get to the point where he is now with the project.
“Right now he just has an option agreement with the state to buy the land, there’s no guarantees of approvals, there’s no guarantee that he’ll cross the finish line. The town doesn’t have to approve the TIF, none of that stuff is guaranteed. It was just, of the proposals that we received, his was deemed the best, and the developer that was most likely to be able to finance and build a viable project.”
Of the 77 acres, about 40 on the upland portion of the property are considered developable. The lower 37 acres that slope down to the Mystic River would be protected by the state as open space and could accommodate walking trails.
A problematic record
In an April 12 letter to Groton Town Manager John Burt, Attorney Edward Moukawsher questioned Respler’s status as “preferred developer” given his criminal record listed in a Semiannual Report to Congress in 2004-2005.
Moukawasher represents Westervelt as well as Groton residents Robert Welt, John Goodrich, and Rosanne Kotowski, who is a member of the Representative Town meeting.
Moukawsher also noted that Respler had missed the deadline to file for the TIF, which was due Feb. 11, 2020.
A message left for Burt requesting further information was returned by Reiner and Bronk.
Bronk said that the town does not require criminal background checks with the submittal of a proposal, but did check the information on Respler after Moukashawer’s letter.
“But in terms of the liability, I don’t believe at this point the town is liable for anything. We’ve not entered into any fiduciary agreements with the developer, again it’s premature to do so, and then I think there would be certain requirements.”
Reiner said that even if the town and Respler entered into some type of TIF agreement, the structure of the town policy does not involve bonding, which minimizes town exposure.
“We, the town, do not put ourselves out there financially. We, the town, would not bond anything, and any TIF that was utilized would be based upon improvements that the developer self funds, builds himself, then through that future tax revenue, there would be an agreement where some of that would be refunded back to the developer.”
Bronk said the development agreement between the town and Respler simply validates that the Town Council wants to work with Respler, but does not guarantee approval.
“With the development agreement, people seem to think it’s an ironclad promissory note of sorts, but what it really is is a letter of intent. It somewhat formalizes an understanding between the town and Respler that they want to work together and try to do something in the future.”
Respler told CT Examiner that his original idea was to rehab the Oral School buildings as rental housing, but later expanded his vision into a campus that would look like “Main Street U.S.A.”
“We would build a community around the [school buildings] and have the first floor be retail establishments — a coffee shop, a market with bread, vegetables and fruit, a restaurant, a bar,” he said. “The upper stories would be great for offices, work spaces, the shared workspace idea. There would be a symbiotic synergy between the apartments, the Oral School, and the natural grounds and river.”
He said traffic issues along the narrow Oral School Road would be solved by building a new road that would connect through the additional 16-acre site, creating direct access to Cow Hill Road.
Bronk told CT Examiner that when a development is proposed, the public often believes that traffic will overwhelm the streets of a neighborhood
“And often it’s found when the traffic study is done that the impact is not what people originally assumed because not everyone leaves at the same time, not everyone has multiple cars. There are a number of reasons. And so when that traffic flow is spread out over a 24 hour period of time during a day, it becomes much smaller than people’s original perception.”
Bronk said the Oral School property is often characterized as a small, pristine parcel that needed to be preserved but that more than half of the land has already been developed.
“The area that was already developed is where the developer wants to put this redevelopment. It’s already been used in the past and the idea is to try to do some adaptive reuse on the property,” he said.
Bronk said part of the opposition is simply a dislike of change.
“What needs to take place is allowing a conversation to move forward, so that the right mix of uses and intensity and units — we can get to that discussion. But there are some who don’t want that discussion to occur.”