Breaking away from the firm stances they held roughly eight months ago, West Hartford Democrats Tuesday night said purchasing and remediating the 58-acre UConn property located in the area of Trout Brook Drive and Asylum Avenue may be too costly for the town.
In a unanimous vote Tuesday night, council members terminated the purchase and sale agreement with UConn after a half-hour discussion. The vote comes three days before a seventh agreed-to deadline the municipality had with UConn to finalize the purchase of the property.
Environmental testing at the site is ongoing, and town staff said results indicating the exact cost of cleanup would not be ready in time for the Friday deadline.
In April, Democrats vehemently spoke of the great and rare opportunity it was to purchase the sizable parcel despite knowing since at least October 2016 that the soil contained polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, and knowing the roughly $11 million price tag associated with purchase, demolition and environmental cleanup of the site for at least a month.
Democrat Dallas Dodge said since July 2016 there have been a “number of twists and turns and bumps in the road” regarding the purchase, noting that the town knew it wouldn’t purchase a “pristine piece of property” and there would be some level of remediation.
In January, the governor announced budget cuts to West Hartford, and the university agreed to drop a $5 million purchase price to $1 million. In April, the council voted on party lines to continue to pursue the purchase.
Dodge said the town will “continue to have a significant influence” over the future of the property and there is a plan for “immediate, intense community involvement.”
Town Manager Matt Hart said that community involvement would include focus groups that would tentatively start in January.
Republicans in April opposed the purchase of the property and said the town would still have a say in what happened to the property, as the town controls zoning.
On Tuesday night, minority leader Chris Barnes said he was “relieved and happy to be in this position” and that it was in the town’s best interest to engage in public outreach.
Last Thursday, council members serving on a subcommittee recommended terminating the purchase and sale agreement.
UConn spokesperson Stephanie Reitz said Tuesday it was “unfortunate” the purchase and sale didn’t work out for the town but plans to continue working amicably with the town to find a suitable owner. “We’ll just get there in a different way,” she said. She said UConn will consider its next steps about when and how to market the property.
“Whatever happens, we expect to be in continual conversation with the town of West Hartford, since it has final approval authority over the site’s use and since we share the common goal of having a stable long-term occupant there,” Reitz said in a written statement.
In 2012, UConn announced that it would stop utilizing the West Hartford campus and instead renovate the former Hartford Times property in downtown Hartford into a $140 million campus, which it has occupied since the end of August.
Since that time, one other group — a school from China — had shown an interest in purchasing the school for $12.6 million, but backed out when the town showed an interest in purchasing the property.
The town has already paid UConn a nonrefundable $250,000 deposit on the property and was expected to pay roughly $750,000 to UConn this Friday. The town has also spent roughly $230,000 on environmental counsel and investigative testing at the site.
UConn and West Hartford began negotiations on the campus in July 2016. The original deadline was Oct. 12, 2016, but it was postponed to Dec. 11, 2016, then March 13, May 1, May 19, June 23, Sept. 15 and Dec. 15. Those extensions were granted because of the presence of PCBs found on campus.
In February, the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection put the university on notice that it was violating state law regarding cleanup of the site, which the university said was a misunderstanding.
In August, UConn presented a 10-page plan for continued testing on the site, which is ongoing, DEEP officials said this week. That testing is designed to establish the extent to which toxic PCBs have migrated around the property. Once testing is completed, UConn will create a remediation plan to address those issues which DEEP and the EPA will review and, if acceptable, approve.