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West Hartford Town Council Committee Recommends Against Purchase of UConn Property, Vote Planned Tuesday

The former UConn West Hartford campus, which includes 58 acres and several buildings, stands largely vacant. Photo credit: Ronni Newton (we-ha.com file photo)

The West Hartford Town Council’s Subcommittee on Economic Development has released a bipartisan recommendation that the town terminate its purchase and sale agreement with UConn for the 58-acre campus property.

By Ronni Newton

Nearly 18 months after the Town of West Hartford first executed a purchase and sale agreement to acquire the 58-acre UConn West Hartford campus, the Town Council is expected to vote Tuesday night on a resolution to terminate that agreement and not pursue purchase of the now-vacant property.

Once UConn moved to its downtown campus in late August, the sign at the corner of Trout Brook Drive and Asylum Avenue, and all other signage, was removed. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

At the time the purchase and sale agreement was executed, in July 2016, a non-refundable $250,000 deposit was made and the town entered what was a 90-day due diligence process. Since then, there have been seven extensions of the due diligence period due to allow for inspections, especially following the discovery of PCBs on the property, with the final due diligence deadline set at Dec. 15, 2017.

Throughout the process the sale price for the property was decreased from the $5 million in the original purchase and sale agreement to $1 million. A clawback provision had remained in the agreement.

Town Council member Dallas Dodge, a Democrat who chairs the new ad hoc Subcommittee on Economic Development, spoke to reporters Thursday morning about the recommendation not to move forward with the purchase.

“We’ve had a few meetings over the last couple of weeks and the consensus is that the town should not go through with the current purchase agreement due to the uncertain and potentially significant costs of remediating the property,” Dodge said.

The seventh extension, which expires on Dec. 15, was the final one according to a Sept. 14, 2017, letter from UConn Vice President and General Counsel Richard Orr to Hart.

Town Manager Matt Hart said Thursday that UConn has been conducting the recent samplings on the site. “One of reasons we are stepping away is we don’t feel that the testing process is complete. We would be looking for the regulatory agencies to say this is sufficient … and that won’t be complete by the Dec. 15 deadline,” Hart said.

The state’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection as well as the EPA are involved in the testing because PCBs are federally-regulated, Hart said.

The town will forfeit the $250,000 deposit, but Dodge said the process of due diligence was very deliberative, and that was a known risk. He credits town staff, particularly Community Development Director Mark McGovern with the work done on the process. “It’s taken a lot of hours and [involved’ a lot of twists and turns,” Dodge said, but that’s why you do due diligence. UConn has not required any additional considerations for the extensions, which he said is significant.

In addition to the deposit, the town has spent about $230,000 during the due diligence on environmental testing and legal counsel, Hart said. The

Dodge said that the Town Council “will immediately begin a robust community engagement process,” especially involving the surrounding neighborhood to discuss the future and most beneficial use of the property. While the specifics of the process have not yet been determined, Dodge said it will likely start in January 2018.

While the town will not own the property, Dodge said the town has had a very cooperative relationship with UConn throughout the process and that maintaining that relationship is very important.

Hart and Dodge said that it is possible the town might initiate an RFP process to solicit potential partners interested in developing the property.

Hart said that terminating the purchase and sale agreement will allow UConn to sell the property, which is a risk, however the Town Council still controls the zoning, and currently that is limited to residential with a special use permit allowing a school.

Although there has been varied opinion on whether or not the town still maintains the right of first refusal should an outside buyer look to purchase the property from UConn, both Hart and Dodge said they believe the town does. “This is going to be beneficial for UConn as well,” Hart said of the decision, adding that he believes it will be to UConn’s benefit that the town remain involved in the process.

“Any buyer looking to develop in any intensive way is going to need zoning change approved by the Council,” Hart said. “By doing outreach to the neighborhood, we are going to be sending a message to the development community that the town remains very engaged in the process.”

Hart noted that the location of the 58-acre parcel and its potential is important to the town as well as the entire region.

There is general consensus among the subcommittee members that this is the right decision, Dodge said. Other members include Democrat Ben Wenograd and Republican Minority Leader Chris Barnes.

In a statement, Barnes said, “Town staff and the Town Council have spent a significant amount of time on the purchase of this parcel, but the financial costs, environmental concerns, and potential for liability are simply too significant to go forward with the purchase. We need to be cautious and act in the town’s best interest.”

“Decisions of this magnitude that affect the future of our town demand considerable time and diligence. I am pleased to say that we have given this decision the attention that it deserves,” Deputy Mayor Beth Kerrigan said in a statement. She expressed thanks to UConn for its patience, and said she is “encouraged and excited to be moving forward and hearing from the community about its vision for the future of this property.”

The Town Council will vote on the resolution to terminate the purchase and sale agreement during its Dec. 12 meeting, and Dodge said it is expected to pass with bipartisan approval. He said he credits the Republicans for getting involved in “healthy good debate” and engagement on the issue.

Moving forward the Economic Development Subcommittee will lead the process to determine the property’s future, which has also attracted interest from nonprofit organizations like the Children’s Museum and groups like the West Hartford Dog Park Coalition.

“We plan on having a very robust process involving all stakeholders,” Dodge said.

Hart said he met with Orr on Tuesday to inform him of the town’s recommendation. “We had good candid conversation and they understand our position,” he said.

“We are disappointed that the Town has decided not to go forward with the current agreement, but we have always been willing to have open and candid conversations with the town and we will continue to do so,” UConn spokesperson Stephanie Reitz said in an email.

The responsibility for maintenance of the property will remain with UConn, and Dodge said it is expected that the University “will maintain it to community standards.”

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The former UConn West Hartford campus is 58 acres, much of which is wetlands. The property is largely vacant now, other than some geese. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

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