Deal for Orange to buy train station property derails
A deal in which the state was to give the town a $6.1 million grant to buy eight acres off Marsh Hill Road that was once earmarked for a train station is off the table, as the two could not agree on conditions, including potential affordable housing, according to letters and emails.
At a couple of junctures, politics appeared to creep in to the scenario.
After the town and state couldn’t agree on terms regarding use of the land, the state informed Orange First Selectman Jim Zeoli that funding for the project through an urban act grant had been recycled to other projects at a state Bond Commission meeting.
In a previous email to the state’s representative at the time — former OPM secretary Benjamin Barnes — Zeoli sent a final offer and ended the email with comments directed at political overtones developing in the situation: “I will not subject myself or the Town of Orange to further ridicule in the news papers or other media outlets regarding this Urban Act Grant,” Zeoli wrote. “I do not operate as a Republican or Democrat in this position as First Selectman, I attempt to represent all residents equally and fairly at all times. The articles each seem to get a little stronger as if I created this deal, which is not the case and will not be subject to the attempts of some to tarnish my or the town’s good name.”
When residents approved the deal at a town meeting several months ago, they were told the state would allow the town to do anything with the land — even sell it — with the only requirement being an easement on a portion of the property in case the state ever wanted to put a train station there.
Many residents who spoke expressed skepticism because the deal, as many said, seemed “too good to be true,” in part because the amount the state was offering to pay the town to buy it from a developer was way above market value. After the deal was approved at the town meeting, the state tossed conditions Zeoli’s way and it came to light the property the town would purchase using the grant is owned by Edward M. Crowley of Branford, a major Democratic Party contributor. Malloy administration officials have denied political contributions had anything to do with the deal, in which Crowley would be paid 11 times what he paid for the land three years ago.
Town officials learned in negotiations that the state wanted conditions on the grant, including that the town not rezone the property — now a Transit Oriented Development District — and that if housing eventually were built on part of the land that it would be under the affordable housing act, meaning 10 percent of the units would be set aside for affordable housing under state guidelines.
Avoiding the building of affordable housing on the property — allowed in the TODD district — had been one of the perks for Zeoli in the town getting the property, as he said residents had expressed that desire.
The differences in conditions of the land use between the state and town had to do with land-use restrictions.
The state maintained the value of the land was determined by the assumption the train station would be built and that the “highest and best uses of the property would be transit-oriented.” The town was looking for a light industrial use.
Of the $6.1 million urban act grant, $5.5 million was allotted to buy the property and the rest was earmarked for attorney fees and other associated costs, including an environmental study.
Many at the town meeting agreed the $700,000 per-acre price to be paid was much higher than market value. Zeoli was led by the state at that time to believe the town would be able to sell the property at any price at any time if it were to choose to do so.
The area where the property is located off Marsh Hill Road near the Yale West campus is a hotbed of new development — there is a hotel being built there and also a mixed-use building. That development was sparked in part by the expectation that a train station would be built there, but that was since nixed from the state budget.