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State starts tiptoeing away from the Mystic Oral School developer it picked

Groton residents are lucky to have a competent Planning and Zoning Commission that seems ready to become the firewall against problematic plans to overdevelop the sprawling Mystic Oral School property.

Commissioners, in their first workshop discussion of the proposed development, with its more than 900 houses and a commercial village with offices, hotel and retail, made it pretty clear they have no intention of changing the zoning to allow anything there on such a scale.

Phew.

The commissioners need only address the ridiculous scale of the plans and not the other troubling aspects of the project, which the town's incompetent paid staff has inexplicably been nursing along for more than 18 months.

Not only did the town's staff, supported by the Town Council, choose a developer that has no background building anything on the scale he is proposing for Mystic, but they did nothing to learn about his troubling criminal history in New York.

They also apparently didn't pay much attention to his resume, given that one of the three small housing projects in Connecticut he cited as his developer credentials remains unfinished after 15 years, with only 14 of 69 proposed houses now built.

Jeffrey Respler, whom the town has pledged to help in an elaborate signed development agreement, was pursued by prosecutors in New York and admitted to bribing public officials there with tens of thousands of dollars.

When news of the criminal charges against Respler surfaced here this spring, apparently turned up in a simple Google search by a lawyer hired by neighbors of the property, Town Manager John Burt shrugged.

"I have all the faith in Respler Homes and Mr. Respler," Burt said, after Respler's troubling criminal history was reported.

It now looks like it will be the citizen volunteers on the Planning and Zoning Commission who will come to the rescue of the paid professionals in Groton who cultivated this frightening proposal, setting up a complicated agreement in which the town pledges to help him, even suggesting elaborate tax incentives.

It's not clear yet, though, that a loud no from the town planning commissioners will extricate the state from the legal straightjacket in which it has bound itself to the developer.

Not only has the state signed an agreement to sell Respler the oral school buildings and about 40 acres of prime Mystic land for $1, but the contract imposes virtually no conditions, requiring him to do nothing in return.

While reports of the pursuit of Respler by prosecutors in New York did nothing to shake Burt's confidence in the developer this spring, I suspect it has state officials in Hartford worried and scrambling for the exits.

Indeed, a spokesman for the state Department of Administrative Services confirmed this week that the agency and developer have "mutually agreed" not to renew a sweetheart lease in which the state essentially has been paying Respler some $66,000 a year to maintain the abandoned oral school property, until his purchase is complete.

The town also signed an agreement with him promising not to hold him liable for any taxes as a result of the lease.

A provision of the lease, which has been in effect for close to 18 months, assigned the state's rents from cellphone towers on the property to the developer, a total of about $5,600 a month from Sprint and Verizon. A provision of the lease with Respler allowed for a two-year renewal, starting next month.

Respler has told the DAS that he spent $57,444.66 on management, repair and maintenance, fire, electric, insurance, landscaping and internet from July 2020 to February 2021.  It didn't stop a recent round of nasty vandalism at the property.

I wonder what DAS officials did to extract a "mutually" acceptable deal for Respler to give up the rich lease deal?

They may need to share their strategy with Department of Economic and Community Development officials, who will need to find a way to get out of their no-condition deal to sell 40 acres of land in Mystic for $1.

Meanwhile, the property has sat empty for another two years.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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