After New Haven’s school board failed to strike a deal with a holdout landowner, West Haven officials are speeding ahead with eminent domain proceedings to clear space for a permanent home for a fast-expanding regional science high school.
West Haven’s city council voted unanimously Monday night to pursue eminent domain for four remaining properties near the University of New Haven (UNH), just over the New Haven-West Haven line, where New Haven has been planning to build a permanent home for its Engineering & Science University Magnet School (ESUMS).
The school, which opened in 2008, is a collaboration between New Haven, West Haven and UNH.
West Haven now plans to head to court to wrest land away from one holdout property owner, Radio Communications Corporation, according to Timothy Yolen, a New Haven-based attorney the New Haven school board hired to negotiate on its behalf. The company, which could not be reached for comment, has been refusing to sell its land for under $2 million, Yolen said.
West Haven’s council approved the use of eminent domain in a 4-0 vote, with one councilman abstaining because his child has been accepted at ESUMS, according to Stephen DeCrescenzo, the council’s chairman.
Arguing that a public school is in the public interest, the city aims to use eminent domain to take ownership of the land it wants in exchange for the appraised value.
“We need this in West Haven,” DeCrescenzo said of the school. “The children of West Haven and New Haven are going to benefit from this drastically.” The school currently serves grades 6 to 10; it aims to expand each year until it serves 616 students in grades 6 to 12: 400 from New Haven, 125 from West Haven, and 91 from other towns.
Parents felt “a great deal of relief” when the vote was over, said ESUMS PTO President Bridget Cepalia. Cepalia joined a group of parents and students who lobbied West Haven’s City Council to approve the plan and showed up to watch Monday’s night vote.
“This has been so long in the coming,” she said. “For families that have been here since the beginning, they felt a great deal of frustration.” For years, parents were “waiting for the school to be built and we didn’t even have the land yet.”
“I don’t think anyone feels it’s an ideal situation to have to go out and exercise eminent domain,” she said, but she feels the city made “reasonable offers” and the process is a last resort to dealing with one holdout property owner.
Eminent domain proceedings will begin immediately, with plans to secure all the properties by the end of the year, Yolen said.
The school hatched in 2005 as a joint effort between New Haven, West Haven and the UNH to build the state’s first science-oriented public high school. The city got state approval in 2008 to pay for 95 percent of $66.5 million school. Amid problems securing the site, the city had to ask for an extension to the construction deadline; it now has until June 30, 2014 to break ground or lose funding.
New Haven, West Haven and UNH have now secured 20 of 24 properties needed for the school, according to Yolen. The site occupies a block of land on Waban, Rockview, and Daytona streets and Orange Avenue (around the central cluster of points on the map).
That site was always New Haven’s top choice, though the city had secured an option to buy an abandoned bowling alley across the street from UNH’s campus as a backup plan.
The new site is a mix of university, commercial and residential properties. UNH gladly offered its properties. At other spots, New Haven had to coax homeowners to relocate.
“We tried to be generous,” Yolen said.
Douglas Newton (pictured at the top of this story) was one of the Rockview Street neighbors who agreed to sell their homes. Newton, at 34 Rockview St., spent months negotiating with the city over the price of his home, which was appraised at $150,000. He finally agreed to sell it for $265,000.
“He did a very good job at negotiating,” Yolen said. “He covered the value of the house, plus.”
The state will reimburse the city only for the properties’ appraised value (the highest of two independent appraisals), Yolen said. UNH agreed to step in as an intermediary and buy the properties, then turn them over to the city. The university also agreed to pay the difference between the sale price and the appraised value for all of the properties, Yolen said.
UNH’s role in buying the land is part of a memorandum of understanding recently approved by West Haven, New Haven and UNH. Click here to read it (beginning on page 32).
Yolen said the final cost of buying the 24 properties has yet to be determined: It will depend on final appraisals completed closer to the date of the sales.
And it will depend on how a Superior Court judge handles an expected eminent domain case.
Four properties remain to be acquired, Yolen said. The first three, 23 Daytona St. and 506 and 516 Orange Ave., all owned by Radio Communications Corporation. The owner asked over $2 million for the properties—far beyond the appraised value of around $300,000, according to Yolen.
The company wants to move a radio tower it owns across the street to the properties. And it wanted to appraise the land “as if it had a fully constructed radio tower.”
“We said you’ve gotta be kidding. Absolutely not,” Yolen said. “We don’t believe the Connecticut Siting Council nor the zoning regulations would ever permit your tower to be moved across the street.”
The fourth remaining lot, at 34 Rockview, belongs to a Brooklyn woman who does not live there and is under water on two mortgages there, Yolen said. The woman has signed an agreement to sell the house, but she needs eminent domain to kick in in order to transfer the title, he said. That’s because the amount of the mortgages far exceeds the value of the house, Yolen said. He said he suspects she was victim of some kind of mortgage fraud.
Monday’s vote marked a “milestone” in a difficult process of finding a site for the school, said Will Clark, New Haven schools’ chief operating officer.
He said the city hopes to acquire the land as soon as possible. The city has already hired architects to design the building. It now aims to begin construction “early next year,” Clark said. The school will take about two years to build.
The school’s new site will have modern science labs and will allow for a “tremendous collaboration” with UNH, where ESUMS students can take college credits, interact with college kids and professors and even earn scholarships to attend UNH, Clark said. The school will prepare kids for careers in math and science, which is “exactly the kind of program we should be investing in” for today’s economy.
“It certainly has been a long road, and a bit more complicated than any other project we’ve done,” Clark said, but the “work that went into the partnership” paid off. Now “all the dreams that everyone has had for the school can now begin to come true.”
Previous stories on ESUMS:
• Science School Bargaining Begins
• City Strikes Deal For ESUMS Land
• After Parents Fight Move, ESUMS Stays Put
• Parents Oppose School’s Move
• Science Magnet School Relocates Again
• City Looks West For New School Site
• After Layoffs, Schools Reshuffle
• A Rush To Dig
• A New Star School; Warnings About Others
• Science High’s Ready, With An Arabic Twist