Groton ― While a date has not been set for Respler Homes to purchase the state-owned Mystic Education Center, Gary O’Connor, an attorney for Respler Homes, said Thursday he expects it will be soon.
Respler Homes signaled last month that it intends to move forward with purchasing the property, though no closing date has been set, said State Department of Economic and Community Development Commissioner David Lehman. Under a contract with the state, Respler Homes LLC has until Nov. 13 to purchase the state-owned property on Oral School Road.
Town Manager John Burt said Wednesday the town has not been part of any of the discussions and has no control over the sale of the property. The state told him the ball is in Respler Homes’ court as far as the purchase of property is concerned, and the town is following the issue closely.
“My priority is that whatever happens to the property in the future, the nearby residents won’t be negatively impacted,” Burt added Thursday.
Meeting with the state
Lehman said DECD met with Respler Homes in July, after they exchanged letters in which Lehman expressed concerns that Respler Homes’ announcement of a plan to transfer ownership of Respler Homes to a new company, Blue Lotus Group, which specializes in senior living.
He said the move represented a “significant departure” from Respler’s original proposal for multifamily housing, a commercial hub in the main building, and the renovation of the Pratt Building for recreational, community use.
In his letter, Jeffrey Respler, principal of Respler Homes, was seeking assurances that the “State will continue to honor the Contract and sell the Property to Respler Homes, regardless of the change in the underlying membership interests in Respler Homes.”
Lehman said the state made clear during the meeting that the state has a contract with Respler, so if the state sells the property, it would be to him, not to another party.
“Ultimately, if he decides to bring in partners, pursue another option or potentially to sell the property in the future, that is something that he may decide but that is not something the state is a party to,” Lehman said.
Lehman said the state executed a contract in November of 2019 with Respler Homes, which was extended in 2021, to sell the property.
Lehman said the state does not have a unilateral right or an option to terminate the agreement.
Lehman said Respler Homes has applied to the state Brownfield Remediation and Revitalization Program, a program in which the property owner pays a fee and submits a detailed plan and schedule to clean up the property within eight years, and the owner receives some liability protections.
Respler said in a statement that it has spent millions of dollars on development plans, surveys, engineering studies, environmental assessments, engineering fees, legal fees, architectural fees, and the acquisition of additional properties for road improvements to restore the property.
“The MEC (Mystic Educational Center) property is being transferred for a dollar because of complex environmental issues that will cost millions of dollars to address, exceeding the value of the land,” he said. “There are enormous costs associated with the abatement, demolition and restoration of the buildings located on the property, as some contain hazardous building materials and others have been significantly damaged by vandalism and the weather. Some of the buildings are realistically beyond repair.”
He said Respler Homes has done everything possible to advance its vision for the successful redevelopment of the site, creating jobs, generating significant tax dollars for the town, providing badly needed housing and eliminating blight and environmental issues on the site.
“We believe our project will have enormous benefits for Groton,” Respler added.
Hem Rathod and Adi Jha, principals of Blue Lotus Group, said in a statement that the company “is eager to introduce our vision for responsibly redeveloping the Mystic Education Center in a manner that prioritizes the character of the site and incorporates the heritage of this property and the beauty of the Mystic River.”
Plans call for an active-adult, independent and assisted living community.
“We continue to respect the mediation process that the town has been working through regarding the development of the property, and we are ready to work with the people of Groton, and their public officials to proceed in an earnest, open manner that is informed and shaped by listening to the people who we are excited to have as neighbors,” they added.
Lehman said any project will have to go through the local zoning approval process and residents will have a say in whether they like what is being proposed.
In 2019, a committee which represented both the town and state selected Respler, who proposed a mixed-use development as the developer of the site.
Last year, the Planning and Zoning Commission made clear that it would not support a development of between 750-850 residential units on the 40-acre site because it was too dense and would not implement a new floating zone for the property.
The town and Respler Homes, which have been in dispute over a development agreement they signed in 2020, last held a mediation session in April. The town paused the mediation and has been waiting to find out if the state would proceed with the sale.
He said there is no immediate plan to resume mediation, because there is no point to scheduling a mediation until the town knows whether Respler buys the property.
“We’ll react once we fully know what’s going on,” Burt said.
Several Town Councilors reacted to the news of Respler moving forward with the purchase, after The Day reached out to all nine members on Thursday. Others were not available for comment, declined to comment, or could not immediately be reached.
“There are two possibilities: this is either as atrocious as it appears or the DECD is seeking to exit the mess they created without having to engage in legal wrestling with Respler Homes and are thus dumping the problem with Respler Homes on Groton,” said Town Councilor Aundré Bumgardner.
“The original agreement was crystal clear,” Bumgardner added. “The deal was contingent upon local zoning approval. The citizens of Groton denied approval through our Planning and Zoning Commission, and we are legally on firm ground, and anyone who suggests otherwise is dishonest.”
Town Councilor Scott Westervelt, a co-chair of the Mystic Oral School Advocates said, said: “I’m disappointed that (Respler) has chosen to move forward, and I’m disappointed that the state is allowing him to move forward based on everything that has happened and everything that has been found out.”
“I am profoundly disappointed with the thinking presented by the DECD on this matter,” Town Councilor Portia Bordelon said in a statement. “I had hoped that the state would be far more responsive and sensitive to the concerns and interests expressed by the constituents in the Town of Groton.
“Perhaps, if these deals are not yet fully finalized and closed, there may still be time to persuade the DECD to re-evaluate their current position, place a greater value on including the input of the community that will be most impacted by these decisions, and terminate these agreements in favor of more well-known and locally-trusted developers,” she added.
Attorney Edward Moukawsher, who represents the Mystic Oral School Advocates, a group of neighbors and residents formed in opposition to the project, expressed shock at the news. He noted the statement issued by Blue Lotus Group and called on the state to halt the sale.
“It’s really making a sham and a farce out of the whole process everybody went through to develop this property,” he said. “I don’t see how the state should go through with this.”