'Complicated' ownership debate over North Stonington YMCA property at impasse

North Stonington - The dispute between the town and property owner Van Brown over the former YMCA property on Button Road appears to be headed to court, although Brown is circulating a petition to put the matter before voters.

The Board of Selectmen and Town Attorney Rob Avena made the announcement Tuesday night after the two parties rejected each other's offers, made in writing in February.

Brown had offered a $100,000 settlement in exchange for the town's concession of its claim on the Button Road property, now called Firefly Farms, while the town asked for a "farm use only" restriction on 90 acres of the property and ownership of the other 35 acres.

Avena said Tuesday that the town will essentially hold the line on its Feb. 22 offer: The town will no longer pursue title to 90 acres of the property but will seek a Superior Court ruling to restrict the land's usage and grant title to the town on the remaining acreage.

"It's a complicated case of law. The state of Connecticut has an interest in this 125 acres as well as the town does, as well as Van Brown," Avena said.

Brown's petition for a town meeting would put before residents the question of whether the town should continue to spend legal fees on the dispute or accept his offer. First Selectman Nicholas Mullane said $12,000 had been spent on legal fees as of February.

Brown would need 200 signatures in order to force a town meeting. A day and a half into circulating it, he said he had about 30.

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 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.

Brown and the town have been able to settle just one facet of the dispute. As of last week, the town agreed to lift a forest conservation easement that limited activities on the property in exchange for a settlement of $2,250.

The roots of the dispute lie in decades-old language. When the former Norwich YMCA purchased the property in 1972 from its Norwich landowners, it did so on the condition, written in the deed, that the property would return to the town for use as open space should the YMCA ever cease running Camp Anderson there.

The YMCA went bankrupt and shuttered for good in 2009. But long before that, in 1988, in order to swap some of the land for an adjacent 35-acre swampy piece so the YMCA could construct a pond, the town had voted to release the so-called "reverter" clause that gave the town a claim.

For a while, the debate centered around whether that release was valid: Minutes from a May 1988 town meeting describe residents' intention to release just a 28-acre piece, but the language of the release, filed nearly a year and a half later in North Stonington land records, seems to apply to the entire property.

Town officials' primary concerns now seem to be ensuring the grantors' original 1972 intent is upheld on the 90-acre parcel and pursuing North Stonington's claim on the 35 acres, which they say the "reverter clause" applied to once the 1988 land swap was made.

Avena said the town's claim on the 35 acres is "very strong." At the selectmen's meeting Tuesday, Dugan Tillman-Brown, Van Brown's son, who oversees farm, said he did not understand why the town wishes to claim the 35 acres, which he said are too swampy to walk across without sinking in.

As for the rest of the property, Avena said Brown has been an "excellent steward" in maintaining the grounds as open space, but that a farm-use-only restriction is necessary both to set a precedent and to maintain the original deed.

All three selectmen made comments supportive of the decision to take the issue to court following Avena's overview of the case Tuesday night.

"We are concerned that the intent of the original grantor be maintained and that the credibility and that the ethics aspect of the town can be depended upon," Mullane said.

Selectman Mark Donahue added that the board wants to ensure that the town would uphold the intent of any future land gifts.

While Selectman Shawn Murphy said that the board's intent is not to hinder Brown from farming, Brown said the farm-use-only designation would be too severe and would place restrictions on keeping a home on the property and perhaps selling it as something other than farmland in the future.

"It's just the idea of them trying to restrict us," he said in an interview. "It is our contention that on that 90 acres, they don't have the right to restrict us. We do not think they have standing there."

Avena said the state, through the office of the attorney general, also has an interest in keeping the whole 125 acres as open space under the charitable purpose statute, and would be a party to the case in court.

Brown's title insurance company will ultimately make the decision on whether to fight North Stonington in court, he said. Chicago Title could choose to let the town have the property and then compensate Brown for his losses.



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