A referendum to sell E.O. Smith High School and the property it resides on to the University of Connecticut could be on November’s ballot, one Mansfield town official said Monday night.
The proposal, which is still in the early stages and has not been formally drafted, would result in a dramatic expansion of UConn’s South Campus.
Town Manager Matt Hart said at a town council meeting Monday night that he “is urging” town officials to prepare for the possible ramifications if the referendum is drafted, placed on the ballot and approved by residents.
Hart said the superintendent of Regional School District No. 19, Bruce Silva, received formal approval to approach university officials about the sale of the existing high school. In return, the school district would ask the university to provide land on Depot Campus to serve as the site for a new high school.
The discussion comes three weeks after members of the board of education for Regional School District No. 19 heard proposals from an outside contractor that found renovations to E.O. Smith High School would cost between $9.3 million and $13.8 million, according to an earlier report in The Daily Campus.
The contractor, Tai Soo Kim Partners, also evaluated the cost of a new high school facility, which it found would cost $35 million.
UConn’s latest master plan, adopted last February, calls for the construction of a new parking garage on Bolton Road in the South Campus area. The acquisition of E.O. Smith High School could affect the location of the parking garage.
The master plan also calls for the removal the nine cottages along Gilbert Road and Whitney Road, clearing space for the development of a new honors residence hall near the South Campus quad.
Linda Painter, town director of planning and development, said the university has delayed plans to develop the new South Campus honors residence hall because of its tightening budgetary situation, but will continue with plans to remove the cottages.
“I’m very strongly opposed to the continuation of those buildings on Whitney and Gilbert roads,” Mayor Paul Shapiro said, adding he had an office in one of them “for some time” during his two decade-tenure as the university’s general counsel.
Town officials sent a letter and an environmental impact evaluation of the South Campus development plan to university officials last March.
Concerns about new gym’s effect on student housing
Members of the town council expressed concern that UConn has made a mistake in its decision to tear down the Connecticut Commons residence halls by 2017 to create space for the new student recreation facility.
“The impact will be negative,” Democratic council member Peter Kochenburger said bluntly.
Town officials said they are concerned about the effect of the loss of student housing given the university’s plans to continue increasing enrollment. The demolition of Connecticut Commons will eliminate 435 beds on campus. University officials point out that the opening of Next Gen Residence Hall with 727 new beds will offset that loss.
Town council members voted to approve what Shapiro promised would be a pair of “strong” letters to the university, urging officials to reconsider plans to delay the construction of the new South Campus honors residence hall or select a new site for the student recreation facility.
The new South Campus honors residence hall is expected to have 650 beds.
First step toward Ravine Road resolution
The town council unanimously endorsed a plan to spend $110,000 on safety improvements for Ravine Road and eventually re-open the road, which has been closed since last March.
Under the proposal the town will now pursue, the town will retain ownership of both the paved and dirt portions of the road. Gates will be installed at both ends of the dirt section to allow the Spring Brook Farm to close the road when farming operations necessitate it.
Hart said Town Attorney Kevin Deneen is still working to find “an appropriate legal instrument” to allow designated farm personnel to open and close the gate when necessary.
Safety improvements to the road will include the installation of guide rails along the road.
Democratic council member Ben Shaiken said the town should explore “advanced signage” on state Route 32 to note that the road may be closed at times.
Funds will come from next year’s town capital improvements budget.