It’s been four years, but CT Studios developers continue to take steps - albeit small ones - to make their vision of building a large movie studio and office complex in South Windsor a reality.
The latest development in what has been a four-year saga took place Tuesday at the South Windsor Planning & Zoning Commission meeting, where the commission approved a request to amend the zoning regulations to reduce the minimum lot size in the I-291 Corridor Development Zone from five acres to three.
The change was necessary, according to Craig Stevenson, an economic development consultant for CT Studios, to allow financial entities to obtain separate mortgages on each of the projects, including a hotel planned at the site.
It was a relatively minor request that the commission passed in a 5-1 vote, with William Carroll, Jr. serving as the lone dissenter.
But the public hearing gave rise to an even broader discussion on the troubled project’s other issues, not least of which are the unpaid taxes that the developers owe on the land for 2010 and 2011, as well as the developers’ plans to build a small, 600-square-foot structure on the 23-acres of land that the town turned over to CT Studios in 2009 to prevent the land from reverting back to the town in late October.
The application to build the structure, which would serve as a security and office building, was officially received by the Planning and Zoning Commission Tuesday evening. It’s not exactly what residents envisioned out of a plan that calls for a 120-room hotel, five studio structures including four sound stages and a mill to construct sets.
Cary Prague, speaking as a private citizen and not in his role as a town councilor, voiced his objections to the application - even though it was not under review during the public hearing.
“This application has been in the news for three years and I think I speak for all citizens that we welcome [CT Studios] to build the studios,” Prague said. “But I pay my taxes…This applicant has failed to pay its taxes.”
Prague was referring to the $40,000 that the developers have due on their tax bills for 2010 and the first half of 2011. The town has a lien for just over $9,200 for taxes due for 2010, while the developer has not paid about $30,000 for the taxes due from the first half of this year.
When pressed by Carroll, Stevenson said that CT Studios would pay its taxes, but that further discussion would be needed with the town for this year’s bill, which he said increased too much.
Stevenson said, however, that CT Studios did not appeal its assessment.
“We are working to resolve this with the town,” Stevenson said. “CT Studios is working extremely hard to move this project to the next stage.”
Stevenson did say that it was not “uncommon” for developers to become delinquent on their taxes during the development/planning stage. What’s more, the sluggish economy has made it difficult for the developers to keep the project moving forward.
During public comment, Prague, again noting that he was speaking as a private citizen, also said that the proposed small building on the land provided by the town “usurps the Town Council’s authority to conduct business in a proper manner."
“I urge you that, until a new plan and financing [is established]…that you table the application until such time as they do.”
Stevenson responded that he was not prepared to discuss the application for the small building, but that he was merely present to discuss the public hearing on the request to amend the zoning regulations.
In an interview after the hearing, however, Stevenson said that it wouldn’t be necessary to build the small structure of taking out the building permits for the studios met the reversion clause. The studios, however, aren’t going to be constructed on the land the town provided the developers and the agreement was worded in such a way that the small building became a necessity to keep the reversion clause from kicking in.
The agreement between CT Studios and the town was drafted in 2009 and requires that the land - which was given to the developers for $1 but subsequently mortgaged for $1.5 million - revert back to the town if nothing is built on it by Oct. 26, 2012.
“No one gave this a lot of thought,” Stevenson said. “No one expected that in three years nothing would get built. We thought it would be much quicker.”
Stevenson said that the plan was for the studio to be built first, followed by the hotel. But because the deal has not closed yet, the best way to satisfy the reversion clause is to build the security/office building.
“If CT Studios could satisfy the reversion clause by pulling permits and initiate construction on studio property, that would absolutely be our preference,” Stevenson said. “[But] it is irresponsible not to satisfy that clause.”
But Stevenson said that despite the struggle to get the project out of the planning and into the building phase, CT Studios is tantalizingly close to becoming a reality.
Stevenson said that the developers are “one filing” - the mylars - away from the final stage of planning - this despite at least one town employee derisively calling the project “Bigfoot,” the elusive mythical creature that people have reported seeing, but have never confirmed. It’s something that Stevenson said was unfair, considering that the developers have spent in the neighborhood of $3 million to keep the project moving forward.
“It is not Bigfoot; it is not a phantom. It will come to fruition,” Stevenson said.
Private financing, according to Stevenson, is in place; what is holding everything up is how the public infrastructure will be funded. The latest plan called for a solar farm to be constructed on the site generate electricity to be sold and pay for the infrastructure. Stevenson declined to elaborate in what stage, if any, those plans were.
Despite Stevenson’s optimism, people remain skeptical, particularly when they hear that the developer has spent $3 million to keep the project alive, but owes $40,000 in taxes on the property.
It’s something that’s not lost on Stevenson.
“It’s very frustrating that they missed $10,000 in tax bills,” Stevenson said. “But they’re moving forward and moving with a purpose and that purpose is to make CT Studios a reality.”