The West Hartford Town Council approved a resolution Tuesday night authorizing Town Manager Ron Van Winkle to offer the University of Connecticut $1 million as the purchase price for the West Hartford campus.
By Ronni Newton
The West Hartford Town Council approved a resolution involving purchase of the UConn West Hartford campus Tuesday night by a vote of 5-3 along party lines, authorizing Town Manager Ron Van Winkle to offer a total of $1 million to purchase the 58-acre property.
Mayor Shari Cantor, a member of UConn’s Board of Trustees, abstained from the discussion and the vote.
The Council members who voted in support of the purchase said that although there are other costs associated with owning the property, the $1 million cost is a good deal and would provide the town complete control over a large parcel of land.
According to Van Winkle, the move to offer $1 million follows significant discussions with the University on an almost daily basis “to come to an outcome that works for us both.” UConn’s Board of Trustees will consider the offer when they meet on Wednesday, and if approved a new contract will be executed.
The offer will include plans to close on the purchase in October 2017. The clawback provision that was part of the original contract, requiring UConn to receive 90 percent of the excess over the sale price should the town “flip” the property, will remain in effect through Oct. 1, 2026.
“We anticipated this outcome based on our conversations with the town, and we expect UConn’s Board of Trustees to take it up as an addition to the meeting agenda tomorrow (Wednesday),” UConn spokesperson Stephanie Reitz said in a statement emailed to We-Ha.com following the vote.
Prior to voting, the Town Council engaged in a lengthy discussion about authorizing the purchase, with a clear division between Republicans and Democrats.
Republican Minority Leader Denise Hall said that when the town first planned to purchase the property, for $5 million, she voted for Van Winkle to begin negotiations. “I thought it was an interesting idea and had potential to change the future shape of the town. A lot has happened in the last year including a governor’s budget which creates havoc with our budget,” Hall said.
In addition to budget issues, Hall said she has increased concerns about contaminants found on the property, the expense of clean-up, and how it might impact the town’s future liabilities. She said that even Van Winkle had called the property a “white elephant.”
Although the existing contract with UConn would be void if the town does not make a payment by May 1, or enter into a new contract, Hall said she would prefer not to be rushed into making a decision about the property now and is not convinced that the town should be taking on the role of developer and believes the power of zoning is sufficient. “I would be happy to entertain it in the future when we have a clear understanding of our own financial house and the state of the property,” she said.
Republican Chris Barnes said that although he also initially voted to purchase the property, looking at the budget now “the timing is just not right.”
Chris Williams, also a Republican, expressed concern with the “extent of toxicity” that may exist at the property and what it might cost to clean up. He asked his Democratic colleagues to consider “whether the unknown cost is a risk worth taking.”
According to Van Winkle, the town has spent about $180,000, separate from deposit money, doing an in depth environmental investigation. PCBs were found in one building on the site, and the nearby soil, something not something uncommon in a building of that age, he said.
“We informed the University and they did the right thing and informed DEEP,” Van Winkle said. He is confident in an estimated $420,000 as the cost of PCB remediation. There is also asbestos which would need to be remediated should the buildings be renovated or demolished.
Democratic members of the Town Council did not express undue concern about the contaminants, and instead said purchasing the property – especially at such a reduced cost – would provide opportunity.
Judy Casperson said there is revenue possibility, and recommended listening to what the public wants to see on the land “to see what the opportunity might be.”
Dallas Dodge disagreed with comments made by the Republicans that the Council’s control of zoning would be strong enough control over the ultimate use of the property. He said the parcel is one of the most important assets the community has.
“We will never again have the opportunity to control this much open space and open land in West Hartford,” Dodge said. He said that he believes for the $1 million purchase price, that the town will be able to find a good use for the property.
“I think ultimately this will be a site that twill be developable in whole or in part and usable for our own benefit. This is a unique opportunity and they don’t grow property anymore,” Ben Wenograd said.
Wenograd said that when you’re buying a property and you find a problem you renegotiate the price, which is what the town did. He thinks that the town will do a better job talking to residents and determining the best use as an owner, rather than acting just as zoning official.
“This is a great opportunity to have space for many of the things we’ve talked about,” said Wenograd, adding that although the fear of the state budget is legitimate, “I don’t think it can prevent us from making a generational decision.”
Beth Kerrigan said she struggled with the decision, about making a mistake in purchasing the property. She said she relied on the town manager’s opinion, and based on the pros and cons herpresented, and based on the town’s finances and the level of control ownership would provide, “It’s a smart decision to make.”
Van Winkle added that while this year’s budget – which the Council would address following the vote on the UConn property – is of concern, the purchase price is 20 percent of the cost the town was originally planning to spend. He said he thinks the town would do a better job finding the right developer, at the right price, and that potential buyers might be scared off in just dealing with UConn because the town has the zoning authority.
“At this price it has potential if you develop it – a portion of it,” Van Winkle said. Much of the land is wetlands and will remain open space, but it will be an opportunity for the town to expand its park uses, and if development is allowed, he is confident that within two years the right developer will be found.
Having the town manager go forward with $1 million is the right decision,” Deputy Mayor Leon Davidoff said. The property now occupied by the Miracle League and Little League fields alone is worth at least $1 million to the community, he said.
As for the future use of the property, Davidoff said, “What’s more powerful than power of zoning is power of ownership.”
Until the Board of Trustees votes on the offer, the town currently remains under contract with the University of Connecticut to purchase its West Hartford campus, and under the terms of that contract is due to pay the next installment of $750,000 on May 1 – the last extension of due diligence date to which UConn agreed.
Under the terms of the contract executed last July, closing will be scheduled for October 2017, after UConn moves to its Hartford campus, with the final installment of $4 million due at that time.
According to Van Winkle, if the town decided not to purchase the property, the $250,000 deposit made when the purchase and sale agreement was executed in July 2016 would not be repaid. Under the terms of the current contract, should West Hartford pay the $750,000 due on May 1, and then decide not to go through with the purchase, the town would not get that money back either.
Van Winkle said that paying $1 million for the property really this would just be $750,000 more, because $250,000 has already been paid.
The $750,000 for the May 1 deposit had been set aside in the town’s 2016-17 budget, but Van Winkle said that should UConn approve the offer, the Town Council will need to consider how it wants to pay. “Purchase of land is something you usually bond for,” he said.
Even if the property is not used for any purpose other than green space, there are still associated maintenance costs, Van Winkle said.
Ongoing and frequent discussions have been taking place between UConn and the town since Town Manager Ron Van Winkle, in a letter dated Feb. 27, 2017, officially notified UConn Vice President and General Counsel Richard Orrthat West Hartford would not meet the contract’s previous March 13, 2017, due diligence date. In that letter, Van Winkle cited uncertainty in the town’s budget due to issues at the state level, requested an extension until two weeks after the state passes its budget, and suggested that the University might want to solicit other buyers.
Orr’s response to Van Winkle in a letter dated March 2, 2017, was to extend the contract until May 1, 2017. He also informed the town that it was his opinion that should West Hartford fail to meet the terms of the contract, which requires a payment of $750,000 by May 1, UConn does not have to give the town the first right of refusal if another buyer is found.
West Hartford Deputy Corporation Counsel Kimberly Boneham has stated her disagreement with Orr’s interpretation of the right of refusal clause.
The town also expressed concerns with a statement made by Orr in his March 2 letter, indicating that due to its own budget constraints, “UConn will likely not have the financial resources necessary to maintain the West Hartford campus property as we would have in the past.”
After the Town of West Hartford entered a contract with UConn last summer to purchase the property for $5 million, a deposit of $250,000 was made and the town entered into a due diligence period. That period was extended, several times, after a higher-than-expected level of PCBs were found.
In addition to the $5 million purchase price for the 58-acre property, Van Winkle said that due diligence studies done by a town-hired consultant indicate that the cost of demolishing the buildings on the campus could be $5 million, plus another $500,000 for soil remediation.
In May 2016, Van Winkle negotiated with UConn for the $5 million purchase price for the West Hartford campus, rather than allowing it to be sold to China-based Weiming Education Group. Weiming had negotiated an agreement directly with UConn to purchase the property for $12.6 million.
A week earlier, on May 3, 2016, hundreds of residents attended a public information session to voice opinions about whether or not they thought the Town should purchase the UConn property and to understand the nature of any agreements planned between Weiming Education Group and West Hartford Public Schools that might impact the future of the property.
If UConn approves West Hartford’s offer to purchase the property, discussions with the neighborhood will need to take place to determine its use. That’s something, Van Winkle said, which the town had promised to do but has not yet happened because of the uncertainty about whether or not the purchase would take place.
The parcel is currently zoned for residential use with a special use permit to allow a school.
“There is opportunity to do some amount of development. Mostly where the buildings are now is where you can build,” Van Winkle said. He expects, at least initially, for a significant portion to be green space.
The Council will work on it with the neighbors, Van Winkle said, “On how to utilize it and generate some tax revenue.”
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