[Updated] Town Still Discussing UConn West Hartford Campus Purchase

UConn West Hartford campus. Photo credit: Ronni Newton (we-ha.com file photo)

[Updated June 23 with comments from the University of Connecticut’s general counsel.] The due diligence date has been extended until September to allow all parties to get a better understanding of contaminants on the property and for the Town of West Hartford to determine if it should purchase the property for $1 million.

By Ronni Newton

The West Hartford Town Council’s Community Planning and Physical Services Committee met Thursday night, and following the regular meeting held an executive session where a decision was made to continue discussions with the University of Connecticut regarding purchase of the West Hartford campus.

Town Manager Ron Van Winkle said after that executive session that the town and UConn have agreed to extend the due diligence date again, until Sept. 15, 2017.

The extension will allow for continued examination of the property to determine the extent of PCB contamination and the cost to clean up the contamination, and to confirm terms for future liabilities.

In a letter to Van Winkle dated June 22, 2017, and provided to We-Ha.com on June 23, 2017, University of Connecticut Vice President and General Counsel Richard Orr confirmed the extension of the due diligence date until Sept. 15, 2017, and wrote, “UConn is committed to working with the Town and with the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) to find a way to address these issues. To that end the UConn has already done its own testing and taken interim remedial measures. More recently UConn officials met with DEEP and Town officials met separately with DEEP.”

In late April of 2017, the Town of West Hartford and University of Connecticut had come to an agreement to allow the town to purchase the 58-acre campus property at the intersection of Asylum Avenue and Trout Brook Drive for $1 million. The purchase was approved by the West Hartford Town Council in a 5-3 vote along party lines on April 25, 2017. Mayor Shari Cantor, who is a member of the UConn Board of Trustees, abstained from the vote.

The UConn Board of Trustees approved the $1 million deal on April 26, 2017. West Hartford has already paid a $250,000 deposit, and the remaining $750,000 would be due at the closing in October 2017.

The deal agreed to in April followed an original deal for the town to purchase the property for $5 million –a price that was re-negotiated to $1 million after a higher-than-expected level of PCBs was discovered by town-hired consultant Milone & MacBroom. The deal has a clawback allowing for UConn to receive 90 percent of the purchase price above $1 million should the town sell the property to another party prior to Oct. 1, 2026.

PCBs – polychlorinated biphenyls – are manmade compounds that were used in many pieces of electrical apparatus in the middle of the 20th century, and are also commonly found in caulking and other insulators as well as in paint. The use of PCBs was banned in 1979, and disposal of the material is regulated by the EPA.

Van Winkle said that the town was informed by Milone & MacBroom in August 2016 that PCBs were present not only in the caulking, but also had bled into the masonry and the ground of one particular building. “Once it gets into the soil, it could bleed further and get into the groundwater,” Van Winkle said in October.

Because of the presence of PCBs, the Connecticut Department of Energy & Environmental Protection (DEEP) was consulted, and a meeting was scheduled for May 25, 2017. UConn Vice President and General Counsel Richard Orr agreed in a letter dated May 17, 2017, and addressed to Van Winkle, to extend the due diligence to June 23, 2017, to allow for the results of the meeting with DEEP to be considered.

“I understand that the Town has been in contact with the Department of Energy & Environmental  Protection (DEEP) to arrange a meeting and that a meeting date has been set for May 25th~ UConn  agrees that this extension request is appropriate in order to provide time for the Town and DEEP to meet, and then for UConn and the Town to finalize revisions to the Agreement. Accordingly, UConn is pleased to agree to the Town’s request to establish a fifth new Outside Diligence Date of Friday, June 23, 2017,” Orr wrote in that letter.

According to Van Winkle, DEEP now believes that contaminants may exist in other locations on the property and further study is advised. In April, Van Winkle said that the cost of PCB clean-up was estimated at $420,ooo, but now expects that cost may be adjusted. A meeting has now been set up for July 21, 2017, between the town, UConn, and DEEP, he said Thursday.

Orr wrote in his letter to Van Winkle that the University agrees that based on DEEP’s recommendations, “additional sampling be done of the sediment from the pond and catch basins near the social work and undergraduate buildings, but we believe that it should be done in the context of an overall approach developed jointly among DEEP, the Town, and UConn.”

“No decision has been made to buy or not to buy,” Van Winkle said Thursday. “We are still gathering information.”

Van Winkle will retire on June 30, 2017. Matt Hart, who has been hired as town manager, is scheduled to begin work on July 31, 2017, and CFO Peter Privitera will serve as interim town manager during the month of July. Privitera is expected to attend the July 21 meeting.

Van Winkle said that he has been briefing Hart on the negotiations, and Hart will be involved in whatever discussions take place about the property prior to the Sept. 15, 2017, due diligence date.

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