North Stonington, farmer reach compromise

North Stonington - Following the advice of a Freedom of Information hearing officer, selectmen compromised last week with a property owner who made several allegations against the town.

Van Brown, owner of Firefly Farms, filed FOI complaints about several actions and records relating to the Board of Selectmen's decision to pursue legal action against him, although he withdrew the majority of his complaints after hearing officer Clifton Leonhardt told him that they did not fall within his jurisdiction.

One of the farmer's complaints, however - an allegation that he was unable to access Board of Selectmen meeting minutes when he visited town hall late last year - appeared to have some merit, said Leonhardt.

On either Dec. 30 or Dec. 31, 2013, Brown visited the town clerk's vault in the New Town Hall and asked to review the Board of Selectmen minutes. When he could not find the minutes he was looking for, Town Clerk Norma Holliday said the more recent minutes were stored in a vault in Old Town Hall adjacent to the first selectman's office and consulted with First Selectman Nicholas Mullane to see if Brown might take a look at them.

Brown was unable to review the minutes on that date.

Town Attorney Nicholas Kepple, who argued the case for North Stonington at the hearing, said the minutes are normally available to the public but that the office was understaffed because of the holidays, making it difficult to respond to Brown's request. The town later emailed him a packet of the agendas and minutes that he requested, including those of four meetings that were unavailable on the town's website.

"I think this public inspection thing, with the minutes (kept) in the first selectman's office, is kind of dicey" as to whether it meets the standard of public accessibility, said Leonhardt after listening to accounts from Brown, Kepple, Holliday and Robin Roohr, Mullane's assistant.

Because North Stonington is a small community and "you have some interest in continuing to get along," Leonhardt suggested that Kepple, Brown and the selectmen try to reach an agreement among themselves.

Brown agreed to withdraw his complaint in return for the town making an effort to make meeting records more accessible. The town, said Kepple, would improve the website by regularly posting minutes of all boards and commissions.

And by the end of that week, said Kepple, the town would "deposit the selectmen's minutes in the clerk's office and make the clerk's office the repository of those records," allowing the public quicker access to a complete set of the Board of Selectmen minutes.

Although they were able to resolve the Freedom of Information dispute amicably, the town and Brown are still heading to court over the former YMCA property on Button Road, which is now home to Brown's Firefly Farms.

The two parties are at an impasse over the ownership and use of the 125 acres, which was given to the Norwich YMCA as a gift in 1972 with a deed asking that the land revert to North Stonington to be used as open space if the YMCA no longer used it.

Town officials believe the property may rightfully belong to North Stonington and hope to claim 35 acres of it. They would also like place restriction on the other 90 acres, requiring it to remain open space as the original owner requested.

During a 1988 town meeting - two decades before the Y's 2009 bankruptcy - North Stonington residents voted to release the reverter clause. When the paperwork was filed a year after the vote, it released the town's claim on the entire 125 acres - which Mullane has said was a misinterpretation of a vote that was meant to apply only to 28 acres, allowing the Y to make a land swap.

Because of the release of the reverter, Brown was able to buy the property in a 2011 sale that the town has disputed ever since.

In May 2013 referendum, residents voted that the town should accept an offer made by Van Brown to give the town $100,000 in return for it releasing all interest in the property. The referendum stipulated that the town must use half of that money to start an open space fund.

But the referendum included the "condition that the State of Connecticut deems the open space fund dedication sufficient" to meet the open space preservation intent of the original landowners.

The state has not yet made a ruling in that regard.

The legal dispute between Brown and North Stonington is headed to mediation on Sept. 9.

k.catalfamo@theday.com
Twitter: @kccatalfamo

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