Published May 14. 2013 9:00PM Updated May 14. 2013 11:52PM
North Stonington — Hard numbers cemented the image of a town divided over the former YMCA property Tuesday night as the last of the votes were tallied: 260 want the town to settle and walk away, and 253 voted to reject property owner Van Brown's offer.
Bob Shabunia, the town's de facto moderator at town gatherings, called to order and adjourned a less-than-one-minute meeting in the New Town Hall meeting room a little after 8 p.m. to announce the numbers to the dozen or so who stuck around for the results. The seven-person margin — which includes Brown and his wife and son's votes — elicited several peals of incredulous laughter, and from Brown, a sigh of relief.
"Close," he said. "Exciting."
The registrars of voters said the turnout had been steady throughout the day since the polls opened at noon, steadier than they expected. By 6:45 p.m., the 461 ballots they had printed had all been used. They had to resort to hand-counting, with 52 more voters passing through before the polls closed at 8 p.m.
The vote was the latest turn in a nearly two-year-old dispute over the land at 96 and 96A Button Road that began when Brown purchased the property in 2011. When three Norwich landowners gave the land as a gift to the now-defunct Norwich YMCA in 1972, they included in the deed that the parcel would go to the town in the event that the Y ceased to use it. One vote, one land swap and an erroneous land record later, Brown faces the state's interest in the land's "charitably intended" designation as open space, and town officials' interest in preserving the intent of the original deed and their contention that the property may belong to North Stonington.
The town is now seeking to claim 35 acres of the property, which both parties agree have a valid "reverter clause" on it, and place restrictions on the other 90 acres. All three of the town's selectmen have said that no matter the outcome of the referendum, the issue will be taken to court.
In February, Brown offered the town $100,000 to yield its claim on the land, intending $50,000 of it to go toward purchasing open space elsewhere. The referendum question Tuesday night asked residents whether the town should accept this offer, on the condition that the $50,000 meets any "charitable intent" encumbrance on the land.
At a quarter to 8 p.m., Brown, his family and a couple of supporters were camped in the parking lot across the street, holding "vote yes" signs and waving to passing cars. In one corner, Brown had set up a tent and a display with maps, copies of land records, lists detailing why people should vote "yes" and not "no." White cardboard boxes of cookies open on a table were almost empty.
Brown had been there since 9:30 a.m., though the referendum did not begin until noon. His wife, Beth Tillman, and son, Dugan Tillman-Brown, joined him later in the afternoon.
Brown and his son expressed joy at watching small-town democracy in action. "The voice of the people and their choice is going to be heard," Dugan said.
Afterward, accepting some congratulations and handshakes outside, Brown said even a slim vote in his favor "should carry some weight" with the attorney general's office.
"A 'yea' vote is still a 'yea' vote," Brown said.
First Selectman Nicholas Mullane was more reserved.
"I think the vote variance is miniscule, and I don't think that (the Brown family) could say the vote indicated a winner or a loser," he said.
Mullane said the next step will be to wait on the court to convene the case. The attorney general will be brought in as a party, and his office and a judge will act together in the final decision of whether there was charitable intent, who will own the 35 acres and what restrictions, if any, should be placed on the remaining 90 acres.
If it is determined that there was charitable intent, Brown said the case will turn from a "friendly settlement" to a contested lawsuit.