Fate of mill development heads to state Supreme Court

The historic Gilbert & Bennett wire factory in Redding, Conn., in May 2019.

The historic Gilbert & Bennett wire factory in Redding, Conn., in May 2019.

Alexander Soule/Hearst Connectic

It has been nearly six years since Julia Pemberton, in her campaign to become Redding’s first selectman, promised to seize the sprawling Gilbert & Bennett industrial site in Georgetown whose developer has failed to move ahead with a promised village.

It could be a few years yet before Pemberton is able to deliver on that promise, despite a Connecticut judge signing off in February on a town foreclosure on the site.

Entering July, the state Supreme Court entered on its docket an appeal of the foreclosure ruling against Georgetown Land Development and a New York developer that held the rights to the Gilbert & Bennett properties.

With more than 50 acres situated just off Route 7 between Danbury and Norwalk, the properties represent one of southwestern Connecticut’s largest redevelopment sites, about two-thirds the size of Stamford’s Harbor Point district and slightly larger than Bridgeport’s Steel Point peninsula. Gilbert & Bennett’s namesake founders began producing wire at the site during the Civil War, with a factory building constructed in 1900 continuing to dominate the property to this day.

In 2002, developer Steve Soler of Greenwich formed Georgetown Land Development Co. with the vision of transforming the Gilbert & Bennett property into a village setting with more than 400 units of housing, centered on the historic mill building based on a design by Roger Ferris + Partners.

After obtaining bond financing for preparatory work, however, the project stalled, Soler walked away and the project passed into the control of Rocco Trotta, owner of the Syosset, N.Y. construction and development company LiRo Group, which has maintained Georgetown Land Development as the legal entity in charge of the project.

Strict foreclosure, appeal

Less than two years after Pemberton’s election, Redding sued Georgetown Land Development and a limited liability company controlled by Trotta to force a judicial foreclosure on the Gilbert & Bennett property, as an initial step to luring new developers with the vision and financing for new uses.

In February, Judge Carl Schuman awarded a judgment of strict foreclosure in favor of the town of Redding, ruling the properties would vest to the town in late March. RJ Tax Lien Investments promptly appealed the ruling to the state’s Appellate Court, which in late June transferred the case to the Connecticut Supreme Court.

In the appeal, Trotta’s RJ Tax Lien Investments LLC argues the judge erred in concluding that the town of Redding’s tax liens were preeminent resulting in the foreclosure ruling.

Supreme Court cases can take two years or more to work their way through arguments to a final decision, in some instances far longer with one case on the current docket stretching back more than a decade.

For the town of Redding, time is money — Schuman determined Georgetown Land Development and its fellow defendants owed nearly $5 million in back taxes on the property, with the town operating on a $51 million budget for the fiscal year that began this month.

At the annual meetings in May of Georgetown Land Development and its fellow defendant the Georgetown Special Taxing District, the latter entity approved a budget of just under $2 million for the entity to meet its minimum obligations for bond payments and interest among other costs. The Georgetown Special Taxing District raised $20 million via bond issues for site clearing and other preparatory work, as well as upgrades to the local water treatment plant.

With the board meetings held at town hall, the lone Redding representative on hand was Frank Taylor, the longtime former chair of Redding’s zoning commission who has a seat on the board of the Georgetown Special Taxing District.

“Either the parties come to an agreement or the court issues an agreement,” Taylor told Hearst Connecticut Media. “It’s winding its way — ever so slowly — through the courts.”

‘It’s too complicated’

Pemberton did not respond to Hearst Connecticut Media queries on any strategy the town has to entice developers to take on the Gilbert & Bennett site.

Felix Charney, who last year purchased the 100-acre Matrix Corporate Center office complex in Danbury offices, said he has no interest in taking on the property in which he held an ownership interest more than 30 years ago. In addition to the conversion of Matrix to a mix of residential and commercial uses, Charney’s Fairfield-based firm Summit Development led the ongoing redevelopment of the former Reader’s Digest corporate campus in Chappaqua, N.Y.

And earlier this year, Harbor Point developer Carl Kuehner III told Hearst he was aware of the site but expressed no interest in pursuing any project there, with Kuehner having experience in the Danbury area with the construction of the Abbey Woods apartment campus.

Two years ago, a Redding resident named Jane Philbrick estimated at $92 million the cost of a redevelopment of the property in the vision of Georgetown Land Development, arguing that is too steep a figure. Philbrick’s firm, TILL, has a focus on re-imagining the revitalization of brownfield sites, with Philbrick indicating the best way forward would be a phased development, a scenario that would likely involve multiple developers.

Philbrick said no successful outcomes come immediately to mind for a site requiring extensive remediation that has been prefaced by such a protracted period of litigation.

“You can't reasonably expect the high-end development proposed in 2004 in Redding's current market,” she said.

Pending any out-of-court settlement, the Connecticut Supreme Court will determine the site’s immediate future.

Chris Lynch, CEO of Georgetown Land Development, told Hearst Connecticut Media that the company and town have continued to engage in conversations, but that until ownership is sorted out between lien holders like the town and bondholders, he expected the project to remain stalled.

“A lot of developers know it’s there,” Lynch said. “It’s too complicated.”

Dan Haar and Katrina Koerting contributed to this report.

Alex.Soule@scni.com; 203-842-2545; @casoulman