As Deadline Nears, Obstacles Uncertain for State’s Sale of Mystic Oral School

Mystic Oral School (CT Examiner)

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GROTON — The state has set Nov. 13 as the deadline for Respler Homes LLC to purchase Mystic Oral School for $1, but a citizens’ group seeks to halt the sale, citing legal flaws in the state’s process for selling surplus property.

And other obstacles could derail the purchase.  

One potential roadblock is the State Contract Standards Board investigation into Jeffrey Respler, owner of Respler Homes LLC,  to consider whether to disqualify him from bidding on state contracts. The investigation opened in November 2021 and has not held a “show cause” hearing, but whether that will affect the state’s deadline is as yet undetermined. 

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A third factor is the Blue Lotus Group Mystic, which, it appears, has agreed to buy Respler Homes LLC. On Sept. 15, Blue Lotus released a statement that it will develop the property and “bring forward a vision for an active-adult, independent and assisted living community that promotes sustainability and is focused on wellness and a curated, holistic lifestyle.” 

Respler originally proposed the construction of 700-800 apartments on 37 acres at 240 Oral School Road. The project included the redevelopment of the brick school buildings into a multi-use commercial building and rehabilitation of the on-site Pratt recreational building. Respler later bought adjacent land and increased the proposed apartments to 900.

According to Attorney Edward Moukawsher, who represents Mystic Oral School Advocates, a group opposed to the project, neither Blue Lotus nor Respler Homes have been approved by state entities required by statute for the sale of surplus property.

In his Sept. 28 letter to Gov. Ned Lamont and Attorney General William Tong, Moukawsher wrote that state statute prohibits the purchaser from conveying ownership to another entity and, if done, requires a new request for approval by the joint standing committees of the General Assembly.

Moukawsher said the state could also not sell the land under a statute that identifies surplus land that contain brownfields because they must be remediated before the sale. According to the agreement, Respler shall accept the property in “as is” condition and that it acknowledges and agrees that the property is neither cleaned nor pre-permitted.

Respler has applied for the property to be included in the state Brownfield Remediation and Revitalization Program, according to Jim Watson, director of communications for the Department of Economic and Community Development.

In an email to CT Examiner, Watson said Respler Homes LLC “intends to waive their remaining contingencies, pursuant to the contract, and proceed to closing.” 

One contingency was that the town had “amended its zoning regulations to provide for and permit, subject to reasonable conditions and approvals, the project.” However, In June, the Groton Planning and Zoning Commission decided that zoning changes for the property would be limited to small or moderate density, which rendered the project as designed unbuildable. 

When asked if the state has an “out” clause to terminate the agreement, Watson said that the department “remains in contract with Respler Homes, LLC to sell Mystic Education Center. DECD does not have the unilateral right to terminate the contract, as is customary for a Seller in property transactions.”

As far as a hearing before the Contracts Standards Board, there have been delays due to staffing, said board chair Larry Fox. 

He said that the Department of Administrative Service and the Office of Policy Management approved a staff attorney position on July 31 but the job has not been filled yet. 

“We have to run a hearing as the next step of the process and we need an attorney for that,” Fox told CT Examiner. “This has not fallen off our plate but we need resources to move forward,” he said. 

He said it was unlikely that the board would proceed with a hearing by mid-November. 

The Town of Groton has been in mediation with Respler Homes since March. The Town Council voted to exclude Blue Lotus from mediation in May. The town initiated mediation to terminate the development agreement with Respler Homes, claiming that Respler did not provide a development plan and architectural renderings. Respler’s attorney countered that the terms of the agreement had been fulfilled and that Respler was waiting for the necessary zoning change. 

About 15 concerned citizens held a silent protest at the Town Council Committee of the Whole meeting on Tuesday, holding up signs that read, “No! Respler,” “Restrict Mystic Oral School Development,” “Stop the Scam,” “Say no to Respler.”  

CT Examiner asked DECD on Thursday whether the State Contracting Standards Board investigation would impact the Nov. 13 deadline, as well as a number of questions raised by Moukawsher’s letter.

“We are currently reviewing the matter so we are unable to provide any additional comment at this time,” said Watson.