North Stonington - The Board of Selectmen voted Tuesday night to take the long-running Firefly Farms issue to a town meeting.
Although a petition filed last week by Van Brown, who runs his organic hog farm on the former Norwich YMCA property, asked for a town vote to be held, the selectmen's motion Tuesday night will allow only for a town meeting to discuss the issue.
The Board of Selectmen announced earlier this month its intention to take Brown to court to settle the issue of who rightfully owns the former YMCA property located at 96 Button Road. The legal battle that has been ongoing since 2011 concerns Brown and his family, who raise hogs organically on the property; the state's interest in the land's decades-old charitably intended designation as open space in the event of the Norwich YMCA's demise; and town officials' contention that the property may belong to North Stonington based on the land's 1972 deed and a supposed error in later land records.
Van Brown's petition, which garnered 154 signatures certified by the town clerk, asks that it be left to the townspeople to decide whether the town should accept Brown's $100,000 settlement offer and release its claim on the land.
The petition also asks that at least $50,000 of the settlement money be dedicated to an "open space fund" to purchase land in another section of town, on the condition that the state deem such a dedication sufficient to meet the "charitable intent" encumbrance on the property.
All three selectmen seemed reluctant to allow a town meeting to take place. First Selectman Nick Mullane said such an allowance circumvents the board's authority. But all three seemed swayed by the number of misconceptions about the issue they say they have encountered, and the idea that such a meeting could clear the air.
A date has not yet been set for the town meeting.
Mullane said the board will decide within the next week whether the question of what to do with the property will go to a referendum, though it's unclear what kind of legal weight the outcome of such a vote would hold.
Selectman Mark Donahue said no matter what, the issue must go to court in order to settle what restrictions ought to be placed on the property relative to the charitable intent that was apparently in the land's original 1972 deed.
"Going to the town meeting will be an opportunity to talk about it and certainly flesh out the issues much more than we have," Donahue said, later adding, "We're going to be winding up in court regardless."
Selectman Shawn Murphy said the town meeting will be held solely due to a "technicality." State statutes dictate that a petition must have 20 signatures to force a town meeting, and Brown far exceeded this threshold.
Allowing a public discussion - and possibly a vote - would be "deceptive," Murphy said, and fruitless, as the final decision on the land's restrictions will not be up to the Board of Selectmen or the town, but will lie with a judge.
Mullane also emphasized that the town is no longer interested in taking ownership of 90 acres of the property that the town legally released its claim on years ago - only to commit it to some development restrictions. But the town is still interested in an additional 35 acres on the property, on which both parties have said the town's claim is strong.