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North Stonington — The Board of Selectmen voted Tuesday night to send the Firefly Farms issue to a town referendum.
The board voted just last week to take the long-running land dispute over the former Norwich YMCA property at 96 Button Road to a town meeting to give the public an opportunity to air its views and take a vote. The decision came after the owner of the property filed a 154-signature petition asking that the town accept a $100,000 settlement offer in exchange for the town's release of 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 as implied in the land's original deed.
A referendum will provide a broader time frame for residents to weigh in on the petition's proposal; such votes are typically open from noon to 8 p.m.
"That allows an opportunity for a greater number of people to have input on the decision, versus a town meeting that they may be limited to being there for the two hours or whatever that it's up for discussion," said Selectman Shawn Murphy.
The nearly two-year-old legal battle concerns Van Brown, who runs an organic farm on the property with his family and breeds rare livestock; 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.
At this point, the town is no longer interested in taking ownership of the vast majority of the property — just committing the 90 acres to some development restrictions. But the town is still invested in an additional 35 acres of the land.
It's unclear what kind of legal weight the vote will hold if the outcome is in favor of Brown's request. The town could release its claim as a result. But the second prong of the petition renders the authority of the vote hazy, and all three selectmen reiterated what they said when they approved a town meeting: Because of the state's interest in the intent of the original deed, it will be up to a judge — not the townspeople or the selectmen — to determine whether Brown's offer satisfies any "charitable intent" encumbrance on the land.
The town meeting is scheduled for May 7. The referendum will be held May 14.