West Hartford Town Manager Authorized to Negotiate Purchase of UConn Campus

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

The West Hartford Town Council voted Tuesday night to authorize the town manager to enter into negotiations with the University of Connecticut regarding the possible purchase of its West Hartford campus.

The Town of West Hartford will enter into negotiations to purchase the property and buildings on the UConn West Hartford campus. Photo credit: Ronni Newton (file photo)

The Town of West Hartford will enter into negotiations to purchase the property and buildings on the UConn West Hartford campus. Photo credit: Ronni Newton (file photo)

By Ronni Newton

The Town of West Hartford has yet to make a decision about whether or not it will purchase land in town currently owned by the University of Connecticut, but the next step in the decision-making process has been reached by the Town Council’s authorization of Town Manager Ron Van Winkle to enter into negotiations.

UConn’s Board of Trustees notified the Town in November 2015 that it was officially declaring the property at the intersection of Asylum Avenue and Trout Brook Drive as surplus, and formal notice of the intent to sell from University President Susan Herbst was dated Dec. 1, 2015. Statutorily, West Hartford is required to notify UConn within 45 days, by Jan. 15, 2016, of its interest in purchasing the property.

The Town has taken that step after a unanimous vote by the Town Council Tuesday night to allow Van Winkle to discuss terms with UConn. Deputy Mayor Shari Cantor, who is a member of UConn’s Board of Trustees, recused herself from the vote.

Assistant Corporation Counsel Kimberly Boneham said that the Town now has 60 days to come to an agreement on the terms of purchase.

“This isn’t saying ‘go forth and purchase,'” Minority Leader Denise Hall said. “This is just ‘sit down and discuss.'”

Van Winkle told Council members that there is a lot to discuss, and said that a study of the site is currently underway.

Engineering consultant Milone & MacBroom was hired by the Town to look at the site’s floodplains and wetlands as well as conduct Phase I and Phase II environmental studies. Van Winkle said those reports are expected sometime in February.

The Town will also undertake further study of the site’s underground systems and to determine the presence of hazardous materials, Van Winkle said.

“It’s as if you’re buying a used car,” Van Winkle said. The information obtained from the consultant will be important in determining the price as well as the potential use of the property, he said, and he will be working with the consultant as he is also sitting down with University officials over the next several weeks.

The Town is already aware that hazardous materials believed to be present at the property could cost anywhere from $5 to $8 million to remediate, Van Winkle confirmed.

The 58-acre site currently includes five buildings. Van Winkle said Tuesday night that the existing campus buildings “have not been taken to the level that we take our buildings.” If West Hartford decides to purchase the property and retain the structures, “this old used car is going to take some work,” Van Winkle said.

When UConn decided to abandon the West Hartford campus in favor of moving to downtown Hartford, the University indicated that it would need to spend $25 million to upgrade the buildings. The property also includes a parking lot for more than 1,000 vehicles and athletic fields.

The UConn property is currently zoned single-family residential, and there is a special-use permit in place allowing it to be used as a school. A large portion of the property is in a floodplain, and Van Winkle said he isn’t sure that it would be financially viable for a developer to build single-family homes on the site.

“We’ve had people express interest in the site, non-profits mostly,” Van Winkle said, and residents have also called with suggestions about uses for the site, but he said it’s a complex question. The New Children’s Museum has expressed a desire to relocate to the site, and will hold a public information session next week, but has not indicated how it would fund the move.

If the Town of West Hartford declines to purchase the UConn property, there is still control over its ultimate use, Van Winkle said. If UConn finds an alternate buyer, West Hartford will still have the right to “buy it out from under” that other party.

If another party does purchase the property, it is highly likely that the Town Council will be involved with the zoning. “So you’ll still get a bite of the apple if comes back for zoning changes,” Van Winkle said. “This will be a complex process.”

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