Gift of land to Norwich YMCA came with North Stonington string attached

North Stonington - When 26 residents voted in 1988 to release the town's claim on a piece of land to benefit the Norwich YMCA, they couldn't have foreseen the organization's financial ruin.

But nearly four years after the YMCA of Southeastern Connecticut shuttered in the shadow of mounting debt and declining revenues, North Stonington officials are calling into question the larger property's rightful ownership.

The Norwich YMCA sold the 127-acre property in the summer of 2011 to the Brown family of Mystic for $345,000, a sum that would go toward paying off some of the YMCA's pile of debt. Together with his wife Beth Tillman and son Dugan Tillman-Brown, Van Brown - a former aquaculture teacher at Ledyard High School's agri-science program - has turned the former Camp Anderson into Firefly Farms, an organic farm where they raise rare mulefoot hogs and pay about $2,640 a year in property taxes to the town.

When Chelsea Groton Bank and several other creditors began the process of foreclosing on the YMCA's North Stonington property, town officials came forward with a request. The banks couldn't move forward without the town's input, North Stonington's attorney, Frank Eppinger, argued, because the town still had a legal interest in it.

The town gave up its interest in 28 acres of the property in 1988, when the YMCA was laying the groundwork for a man-made lake at Camp Anderson. But they needed wetlands for the project and looked to swap out 28 acres of the drier Camp Anderson land for 35 acres of adjacent swampy land, owned by a neighbor, H. David Geer.

In order to make the swap, North Stonington had to give up its interest on the 28 acres and sign a "release of reverter." That May, a special town meeting was held to release the reverter clause in the 1972 deed and trade the 28 acres for the Geer wetlands. Minutes from a May 1988 town meeting describe a half-hour discussion and unanimous vote to release the town's interest in the 28-acre piece.

Though the minutes imply that residents' intention was to release the town's claim on only that 28-acre piece of land, the language of the release of reverter filed nearly a year and a half later in North Stonington land records seems to apply to the entire 127 acres.

A gift with one condition

It all goes back to 1972, and three men named Brown, Oat and Dahl.

In October of that year, the Norwich YMCA accepted a 127-acre land gift on Button Road in North Stonington from Howard Brown, Clifford Oat and Harold Dahl of Norwich. In the deed, the gift was given on one condition: If for some reason the YMCA were to cease its ownership, the land would go to the town of North Stonington for use as "open space."

Years later, two salient issues stand: Was there express charitable purpose in the 1972 deed - in which case the state could impose restrictions on how the land is used - and was the release of reverter legally invalid?

In short: The town says yes, and Van Brown says no.

As the town, Brown, the state attorney general's office and Brown's title insurance company negotiate, North Stonington's attorney, Robert Avena, said there is some common goal involved.

"Everyone's been trying very hard at accomplishing some of the purposes of the original grantors, suiting some of the Browns' needs, suiting some of the town's needs," Avena said.

The first issue of charitable purpose lies within the semantics of the deed. The term "open space" leaves some room for interpretation. But while town officials could argue that state statutes dictate that the property is rightfully theirs, Van Brown has said that the organic farm suits the legal definition of open space.

"The property's been left in its natural state for 60 or 70 years. And that is the way that the Norwich grantors originally gave it to (the Norwich YMCA)," Avena said. "So you have to divine what their purpose might have been."

The second issue concerns the property's chain of title, or ownership. When creditors agreed to mortgage the property in April 2007, they relied on the implication of the 1989 release of reverter. In other words, the YMCA couldn't obtain a mortgage if its ownership wasn't clear.

Richard Dixon, Brown's attorney, said this is proof of the reverter's legal validity - proof compounded when Brown purchased the property, and his insurance company, Chicago Title, relied on the same chain of title to insure him.

But Avena said because the 26 residents' intent at the town meeting was never to release interest in the entire property, the release of reverter's legal status is unclear. The document referred to the town meeting, he said, but had no legally explicit description attached.

In this case, Chicago Title could be liable.

"The title company has to continually look at what it is that the insured bought, and can they settle or resolve the outstanding issues of the state and the outstanding issue of the town relative to that parcel," Avena said.

In the meantime, the issue has been costly to North Stonington. First Selectman Nick Mullane said that over the past couple of years, the town has spent about $12,000 in legal fees.

And as talk of the dispute has spread, residents hoping for the property to go back to the town have shown up repeatedly at Board of Selectmen meetings over the past year or so, where the issue has been discussed several times in executive sessions.

While Mullane wouldn't comment on where the negotiations stand, or what the town would plan to do with the land were it to fall back under its ownership, he said he stands by the importance of parsing the language of the 1972 deed.

He said he expects to come forward with an announcement sometime in the next week on what action, if any, the town plans to take regarding the property.

"It is the selectmen's moral obligation to follow through on the original intent of this," Mullane said.

But Brown said he is determined to reach a mutually agreeable conclusion while still keeping his farm.

"I would love to have Firefly Farms as a part of North Stonington, and I would love to have our neighbors accept us as neighbors," he said.

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