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West Hartford Council Votes To Move Forward With $1M Purchase Of UConn Campus

Despite claims made last month that the town could not afford to purchase the 58-acre UConn campus because of uncertainty surrounding the state budget, town councilors voted 5-3 Tuesday night to purchase the parcel for $1 million.

Councilors unanimously approved suspending the rules to discuss and vote on the purchase. Under state law, town councilors can add agenda items to a regularly scheduled meeting if two-thirds of attending members approve adding the item.

Mayor Shari Cantor, a UConn Board Of Trustees member, sat in for the discussion and vote but did not offer comments or vote.

The vote was split on party lines — Democrats Dallas Dodge, Judy Casperson, Ben Wenograd, Beth Kerrigan and Deputy Mayor Leon Davidoff voted in favor; Republicans Chris Williams, Chris Barnes and Minority Leader Denise Hall voted against.

UConn spokeswoman Stephanie Reitz said in an email to The Courant: "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]."

In early March, Town Manager Ron Van Winkle said "this may not be the time for the town of West Hartford to purchase the UConn property" and said he was unsure if the town would ever be able to close on the property.

At the time of Van Winkle's announcement, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's budget outlined nearly $14.5 million in cuts to West Hartford, including a teacher pension payment of $8 million. At that time, the town requested an extension to two weeks after the state adopts the budget before making a final decision. UConn said it would allow the town until May 1 to make a decision.

The property is zoned as residential.

Last week, UConn created a website advertising the campus.

Earlier this month, The Courant obtained a two-page letter from West Hartford Deputy Corporation Counsel Kimberly J. Boneham to UConn Vice President and General Counsel Richard Orr saying that town officials were having a difficult time deciding whether the town should buy the property, citing an $11 million price tag for purchase, demolition and environmental cleanup to get soils to residential standards.

Boneham's letter indicated it would cost about $420,000 to clean up soil and roughly $5.5 million to demolish the buildings.

In February, the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection issued UConn a notice of violation saying it had to address PCB contamination on the campus. The university countered that it had a plan and was working to address PCB concentrations found in window caulking and that it would perform air testing. In April and October, crews addressed the contaminated soil – in April crews were seen spreading mulch and in October crews removed 2 feet of topsoil found to be contaminated with PCBs.

Van Winkle said Tuesday that the PCB issue is "not awful, awful pollution."

To date, the town has paid UConn $250,000 for the property. The remaining $750,000 is due in October, VanWinkle said Tuesday.

Hall cited Courant stories Tuesday night on the costs associated with the purchase, as well as a notice of violation from DEEP and PCB air-testing results not yet completed by UConn, as reasons she did not think it was the right time to purchase the property.

"With this many uncertainties, I don't think it's responsible to take on this project right now," Hall said.

Davidoff said he felt it was "the right decision for the town and for our future."

Other Democrats said it was critical the town control the future of the parcel.

In April 2015, the UConn Board Of Trustees voted to purchase the former Hartford Times building on Prospect Street in Hartford for $4.8 million as part of a plan for a regional campus in downtown Hartford. The campus in Hartford is scheduled to open this fall.

Both The Children's Museum and the Weiming Education Group, which owns and operates 42 schools in China, expressed an interest in the West Hartford campus. Weiming offered to purchase the property for $12.6 million in March 2016.

The same month, town officials said they reached a deal with UConn to purchase the property for $5 million.

The property borders Lawler Road, Trout Brook Drive and Asylum Avenue and includes the Harleigh B. Trecker Library and four other buildings, playing fields and parking for about 1,050 vehicles. The buildings were constructed in the 1960s.

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