North Stonington — Four days after the town officially filed a lawsuit against Van Brown, more than 100 residents at a special town meeting Tuesday night took just over two hours to make their case for what should happen next to the land at 96 Button Road.
The meeting harked back in several ways to the one first held regarding the property in 1988. In that meeting, residents voted to release the reverter clause that has caused so much ire a quarter-century later — the clause that said the property, gifted in 1972 by three Norwich landowners to the Norwich YMCA, would go to the town for use as open space if the Y ceased to use it.
When a land record document called a “release of reverter” was filed more than a year later in 1989, it released the town’s claim on the entire 120-acre parcel — a mistake, First Selectman Nicholas Mullane would later say. The 1988 town meeting minutes imply that residents had voted to release the town’s claim on merely 28 acres of the land in order to allow the YMCA to make a land swap at the time — not the whole parcel.
The Y went bankrupt in 2009. The land was foreclosed on, and, two years later, the property was sold to Van Brown. Both the mortgaging of the property and the sale relied on the apparent clear title that the release of reverter allowed. The town has been fighting for its claim to the land — or at least the placing of some restrictions on it — ever since.
After a speech by Mullane extolling the virtues of community and town-level democracy in action, Brown stepped up to offer a chronology of events over the past few decades, leading up to the town’s filing a lawsuit.
In February, Brown and his attorney submitted an offer to the town that, after the Board of Selectmen’s rejection of it, provided the language for the 154-signature petition that was up for debate Tuesday night. In the offer and in the petition, Brown asked that the town accept a $100,000 settlement in exchange for its release of any claim on the land, with the condition that $50,000 be spent on open space elsewhere in town.
Brown said that the filing of the lawsuit last Friday, an intention the board announced several weeks ago, proves that the selectmen are “contemptuous” of him and his farm, and “frightened” of what residents might decide with a vote, which is planned for next week.
Brown said if the lawsuit results in his giving up his land, his title insurance company, Chicago Title, would have the right to sue the town for its losses, which could be well over $600,000, he said.
“If the selectmen have their way, the fees have just begun,” he said, referencing the legal fees the town has paid so far, which Mullane said Tuesday night have totaled about $14,000 since October 2011.
While the selectmen have said they are only interested now in a 35-acre tract of the land, any development restrictions placed as a result of the lawsuit on the 90 or so other acres could present major obstacles to Firefly Farms’ future, Brown said, including keeping his son, who manages the farm, from building a home there.
Brown called the issue both “simple” and “personal.”
“What could be more personal?” he said. “The selectmen are trying to take our farm from us.”
While Mullane repeatedly reassured residents that “every vote counts,” town attorney Rob Avena said that even a vote in Brown’s favor “does not really absolve the town of responsibility under statutes of the state of Connecticut” — that is, whether Brown’s offer meets any charitable intent encumbrance in the 1972 deed. A judge, not the town or its residence, has the ultimate say in “these types of cases,” he said.
“Whether the vote is up or down, the board has a legal duty still to move forward and make a determination of the town’s role,” he said.
The town provided a more than 30-page packet for those in attendance, which included a chronology of events, copies of land deeds, a copy of the 1988 meeting minutes and copies of various correspondence.
“Tonight is not about the money. It’s about whether the town should or should not live up to its responsibility in regard to what started in (1972),” Mullane said.
While the first few speakers all spoke in favor of the town, when Dugan Tillman-Brown stood up to defend his right to farm on the property — something he said fits in seamlessly with the town’s rural character — he received raucous applause and some cheers.
This pattern continued, the comments growing more and more impassioned, seemingly split between those who sided with Mullane’s argument of responsibility and the Brown family’s pleas for the future of their farm.
Brown’s attorney, Richard Dixon, also spoke, saying that if the vote were to result in Brown’s favor, he would advocate on behalf of Brown’s settlement offer to ensure the state agrees that it meets any “charitable intent” encumbrance.
“I believe in farming. North Stonington is an agricultural community,” said resident Katherine Davis. “These people aren’t trying to build houses all over this property; they want to farm it,” she said. Davis added that the 35 acres would be of no use as open space to the town because of its swampy nature.
Resident Amy Foster said that while the selectmen are concerned that letting the issue go without following up in court could set a precedent that would ward off future land gifts, she said a different precedent was also at hand — one that allows the town to seize private property for its own.
Others said the issue is not about farming but about preserving a piece of property that was intended for the town and its future generations.
And Brown’s neighbor on Button Road, Marc Jaffan, said on principle, allowing for subdivision on the land is a “big deal” and not a part of the definition of open space, though what Brown has done on the land so far does qualify as open space.
“It’s open space. They don’t make any more of it,” Jaffan said to applause.
At the end, Mullane said the two hours spent on the subject were “well worth it.”
“I don’t always like what I do,” he said. “I do what I do because I think it’s necessary and because I think it has a purpose.”
A referendum posing Brown’s petition question is scheduled for May 14.