P&Z Not Bound by Groton’s ‘Binding’ Agreement, Limits Mystic Oral School Redevelopment

GROTON — At a special workshop on June 14, the Planning and Zoning Commission reached a consensus that any changes to zoning the former Mystic Education Center property would be limited to small or moderate density development consistent with the surrounding neighborhood and the town’s Plan of Conservation and Development. The decision is at odds with a controversial proposal to build a 931-unit complex on the site at 240 Oral School Road. 

“It’s not good to cram a lot of new housing in that area, it’s not realistic,” said Jeff Pritchard, chair of the commission. 

Commission members made it clear they would only entertain a request for smaller zoning density changes for housing on the site and would not consider other zoning amendments. The site is currently zoned as RU-80 and the commission said it would consider RU-40 and RU-20 for the property located at 240 Oral School Road. 

The developer, Jeff Respler, originally proposed 750 units for “Mystic River Bluffs,” but later increased the total to 931 after purchasing an adjacent 16 acres for space to build an access road. Respler’s vision for the project includes renovating the 100-year-old school buildings for use as office, restaurant and retail spaces and reviving the Pratt building’s pool, theater and gym facilities as a public recreational facility. 

The 77-acre site, of which about 40 acres is developable, is owned by the State, but Respler currently holds an option to buy the property for $1. 

“The overall [plan of conservation and development] encourages development in some areas and discourages development in other areas, but this is an area where we want to discourage development,” explained commission member Hal Zod during the workshop which focused on the Mystic Education Center redevelopment process and next steps for zoning changes.

Zod said the location of the property — located nearly three miles from a grocery store — made it completely car dependent. 

“I’m not sure what it can be used for. There’s no gas station, nothing there that makes it a good place to put a lot of residents. I’d hate to see yet another 1,000 people having to get into their car to get to McQuade’s,” Zob said referencing a local supermarket.

Commission member Michael Kane said the site was convenient to I-95, but was not walkable or bikeable to Groton’s retail areas. 

“If I wanted this kind of development, I would like to see something that is going to benefit downtown Mystic. I don’t want to see it make the parking situation worse because any development up there is going to mean jumping in your car to get to downtown Mystic. People are not going to walk from there or even to ride a bicycle, it’s just not going to happen,” he said. 

Kane said that Groton had historically struggled to define its downtown, but certain areas of town had gained shopping districts, which were appropriate areas to increase housing density. Kane said he was opposed to planning development where it didn’t belong. 

“This is the definition of sprawl to me, trying to create a part of town that wouldn’t naturally occur unless we force it,” Kane said. 

Commission member Steven Hudecek said he was in favor of keeping the zoning residential with allowances for small medical facilities, assisted living buildings or research and design centers — which are allowed in RU districts — rather than large-scale projects.

“I think there’s plenty of good uses that could use a piece of property with minimal impact on surrounding areas — tax generators that wouldn’t have the negative impacts. If you get into a big project you’re going to fundamentally change what’s happening in a portion of town. It’s better to err on the side of cautiousness, this [project][ would open the door to a lot of development,” he said. 

Commission members agreed that the existing brick buildings once housing the Mystic Oral School for the Deaf would be extremely expensive to rehabilitate and that the limited historic significance of the structures might not be worth the cost. In total the structures amount to 175,000 square feet.

Jon Reiner, director of planning for the town, said that whether the buildings are rehabbed or demolished, the site would need to be remediated, and both options would be costly. 

“The cost of removing the buildings will be substantial, that’s the tricky part. The buildings are getting vandalized, there’s graffiti and unsavory things are happening. The cost of cleanup is associated with a number that I don’t even want to put an estimate on right now,” he said. 

Reiner said that demolition costs were a huge factor for the feasibility of any redevelopment of the property. He encouraged the commission to draft a long term plan that would allow for a scale of development that could be still be profitable after those costs.

“If zoning doesn’t enable there to be enough profit to take buildings down, then without a subsidy the buildings will remain,” he said. 

Agreement status

After conferring with an attorney for Groton, Reiner explained in an email to CT Examiner that the development agreement between Respler and the town was binding, but could not prevent the Planning and Zoning Commission from exercising its power to regulate zoning of the site.

“The Development Agreement between the Town of Groton and Respler Homes LLC is a binding agreement.  Sections 5.02 and 15.01 of the Agreement, however, make clear that the Agreement does not in any way bind, influence, supplant or contract away the independent authority of the Town’s Planning and Zoning Commission with regard to any aspect of zoning necessary to complete the project, including but not limited to the proposed zoning amendment.  Section 3.04 of the Agreement also establishes that the Development Plan needs to be flexible enough to adopt to the requirements of any Governmental Authority and changing circumstances. The term Governmental Authority includes Town agencies, boards and commissions.”

Asked in a phone call whether the commission’s stance will leave the development agreement unworkable, Reiner replied that Respler will need to modify the project to accommodate the available zoning. 

“What last night did was put the ball in the developer’s court so that they make an application for what type of zoning [the commission] would like to see on the property. They would have to modify their plan based on the zoning they can get for that property. He has to make an application for the site and what [he] thinks they can accomplish.” 

Besides residential use, the decision by Planning and Zoning would allow for a number of other uses including daycare, assisted living, family care, medical clinics, artisan and craft workshop and small scale food and beverage production. 

Reiner said the next move was up to Respler, who has not submitted an application to the town for a project. 

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