West Hartford Continues Dialogue with UConn Regarding Campus, Disagrees with Terms

The Town of West Hartford has the opportunity to purchase the property and buildings on the UConn West Hartford campus. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

According to West Hartford’s Deputy Corporation Counsel, the town retains the right of refusal regarding other potential buyers of the UConn Greater Hartford campus.

The Town of West Hartford has the opportunity to purchase the property and buildings on the UConn West Hartford campus. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

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

By Ronni Newton

The Town of West Hartford maintains that it still has the right of first refusal should UConn find another buyer for its campus in West Hartford, and also stated in a letter Friday that it expects the 58-acre property and four buildings, once vacated, “to continue to be maintained in accordance with community standards whether the University chooses to fence the property or not.”

West Hartford Town Manager Ron Van Winkle and Deputy Corporation Counsel Kimberly Boneham had a chance to review Thursday’s letter from UConn Vice President and General Counsel Richard Orr, and on Friday Boneham sent Orr a letter in response, indicating that the town is not in agreement with UConn’s interpretation of statute regarding the right of refusal.

“We believe we have a right of refusal if they find someone to buy it, despite that they say they disagree and ‘voluntarily’ followed the law,” Van Winkle said Friday afternoon.

In her highly technical letter, quoting Connecticut statute, Boneham wrote, “It’s troubling that you mention that the University ‘voluntarily chose to proceed’ under § 3-14b and then reference Conn. Gen. Stat. § 4b-21 in an attempt to argue that the University is not required to give the Town an opportunity to match an offer made by a subsequent buyer. Up until this point, nothing in the University’s correspondence or our conversations indicated that the University was operating under anything other than § 3-14b. Regardless, while § 4b-21 gives the University the power to dispose of property directly, it does not give the University the right to disregard the requirements of § 3-1 4b.”

The town also takes issue with comments made in Orr’s 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.” In his letter Orr added that that fencing the property for security purposes might be necessitated.

“That property needs to be in a condition acceptable to community standards. We have no power over the state, but we will do all we can in our power,” Van Winkle said.

Van Winkle said that he is hopeful the issues can be resolved and that there will be a good outcome, but reiterated that the town is not in a position, with the FY2018 budget the community is facing, to move forward with the purchase right now.

“I don’t know what the legislature is going to do, and it’s not fair to [UConn], so we told them we would not object to them talking to others. But we don’t know now and I’m not sure we are going to know by the end of April,” Van Winkle said.

Van Winkle sent a letter to UConn on Feb. 27, notifying UConn General Counsel Richard Orr that West Hartford will not meet the March 13 due diligence date, and suggesting that the University might want to solicit other buyers. In his March 2 response, Orr stated that UConn would offer to extend the due diligence phase until May 1, but not comply with West Hartford’s request to extend it until two weeks after the state passes its budget.

According to Van Winkle, if West Hartford decides not to purchase the UConn property the $250,000 deposit the town made last summer will not be returned. If the town does move forward, and makes the next payment of $750,000 now due on May 1, but then decides not to purchase the property, none of the $1 million will be returned. If the town does purchase the property, the remaining $4 million will be due at the closing date of Oct. 2, 2017.

“Five million dollars isn’t the only problem,” Van Winkle said. The town doesn’t have any particular need for the buildings, which he said have “millions of dollars of deferred maintenance” that would have to be addressed. Only one of the buildings might be of value, he said.

Even before the governor’s proposed budget – with at least $14.5 million in aid cuts just to education – caused the town pause, Van Winkle said concerns about the UConn property were growing. The town has spent about $200,000 on consulting fees evaluating the property, including environmental testing. Earlier in the week he said that it would cost approximately $5 million to demolish the buildings, plus $500,000 for soil remediation.

“At this time I would have expected to be having great conversations with the neighborhoods about the use of the property,” said Van Winkle. The most basic use – turning it into a park – would still cost “north of $15 million,” he said.

Van Winkle said he doesn’t want to cut people or programs just to own the property.

Since the conversation between the town and UConn about the purchase began this week, Van Winkle said he has received significant response from residents. “Lots of disappointment,” he said.

Residents may be more understanding once they see the budget he is set to release on March 8, Van Winkle said. “We will see a sizable increase in that budget, assuming the governor’s budget will pass.” Because it is impossible to predict what the legislature will do, Van Winkle is crafting the budget using the numbers presented by Gov. Malloy in February.

Although he is proposing some cuts to the roll forward budget, and providing multiple options, Van Winkle said it will be up to the Town Council to make significant cuts to lessen the tax increase. “If we need to make large cuts, the leaders should do that, not the town manager,” he said.

Van Winkle said he has spent considerable time with Superintendent of Schools Tom Moore discussing the education budget – which is a large share of the town budget – that will be presented on March 7. The approach to the education budget will similarly include a roll forward with some reduction and other options to consider.

“We will be sitting down over the next two months to see what we should and shouldn’t do,” Van Winkle said.

Regarding UConn, Van Winkle said  the status is still “we’ll see.”

In a statement issued late Friday, UConn spokesperson Stephanie Reitz wrote, “It’s clear that the town and University both understand the issues involved. Although we may disagree on some of these points, we both believe it’s in the best interest of UConn and West Hartford for the town to own this property. Ultimately, the town will need to decide if it wants to pursue that.”

“It’s a big piece of land in the middle of the town. It’s something we would like to have.”

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