NORTH STONINGTON — Officials will move forward in negotiating a lease with Lighthouse Voc-Ed Center Inc. for use of the former middle school wing at the North Stonington Education Center after voters approved the measure on Monday.
Plans to lease the wing were approved, with 266 voters in favor and 197 opposed, during a one-question referendum. The referendum that passed specifies that the town may enter a lease agreement for the one-story wing at 298 Norwich Westerly Road as part of a plan supported by members of the Board of Selectmen to find a use for the deed-restricted property and eliminate maintenance costs from town expenses.
North Stonington First Selectman Michael Urgo said the town will continue to negotiate with representatives for Lighthouse with a goal of finalizing an agreement over the next couple weeks. Urgo said the organization is hopeful that it will be fully operational in the school wing by Nov. 1, if not sooner.
“We are forging forward expeditiously,” Urgo said Tuesday. “Hopefully we will be able to come to an agreement and bring the matter before the Board of Selectmen for a vote in the next couple weeks.”
Plans to lease the location were first discussed over the summer after it became clear that the facility would not be needed as an overflow site for the school district in order to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. At an Aug. 11 meeting, Selectman Bob Carlson and Selectwoman Nita Kincaid approved a measure to enter negotiations with Lighthouse and the Connecticut Coastal Academy, two organizations that had initially partnered to submit a bid.
Urgo abstained from voting as a precaution, citing a possible perceived conflict of interest.
The proposal drew various opinions from members of the public, and widespread support for a public vote at a late August public hearing led the Board of Selectmen to approve the one-question referendum at the end of August.
Proposed plans, which were submitted independently but cooperatively following a Request for Proposals in July, initially involved the Connecticut Coastal Academy occupying a portion of the building from the existing parking lot through the cafeteria, while Lighthouse would occupy the portion of the building closer to the Board of Education offices.
Due to a number of factors, however, Urgo said Tuesday that the Connecticut Coastal Academy has withdrawn from negotiations. Lighthouse is still “very engaged and interested,” he said, and the town remains confident that they will be able to reach a deal that would provide a good use of the facility and possibly even bring in revenue for the town.
“We have already talked a lot about how it would work, and whether they will lease a portion of the wing or the whole wing is part of ongoing negotiations,” Urgo said. “There’s still a number of details that will be ironed out now that the town has voted to move forward.”
Seeking additional bidders would also be difficult, officials said, because deed restrictions set when the land was acquired by the Wheeler School and Library require the space be used “for educational purposes only.” Plans to demolish the property were also abandoned by public vote in 2018 after school renovation costs exceeded expectations, and a recent bidding process showed that costs to do so would likely exceed $1 million.
Lighthouse, a New London-based organization, is focused on special education and support services for students and individuals with a wide range of disabilities. The center specializes in autism spectrum disorders, intellectual disabilities and multiple disabilities, along with social, emotional and behavioral needs.
Under conditions set forth in the RFP, Lighthouse would be responsible for providing insurance for their portion of the facility, accept liability for any utility costs including heat, electricity and cable, and conduct maintenance and repairs to electrical systems, above-ground plumbing, parking area improvements and landscaping services.
“This is an organization that has done some great work, and this is a chance for them to plant some roots that could lead to a strong community partnership,” Urgo said.