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North Stonington residents to weigh in on fate of subdivision trail, Greene Gables

North Stonington — Residents on Monday will be asked to weigh in on two questions involving town property that have been put to a townwide referendum.

During the vote, which will be held from noon to 8 p.m. at New Town Hall, 40 Main St., residents will be asked to decide two questions: one that could lead to the sale of an unopened town trail to residents of an abutting subdivision, and one determining the fate of a building that once housed a school and noted photographer.

The first question on the ballot will ask residents whether the town should transfer, for $1, the trail tracts to a homeowners' association made up of residents of the Chester Main Estates subdivision for their exclusive use.

In 1995, the town's Planning and Zoning Commission approved plans for the 17-lot subdivision that included two areas known as the “East Trail” and “West Buffer.” Though it was not designated as open space, the commission's members thought the plots satisfied a requirement for open land in all subdivisions at the time.

The subdivision's lots then were sold off and developed, but the deeds did not include a right-of-way to the trail, according to a town timeline. In 2009, the town held a special town meeting to accept ownership of the three parcels, and in 2010 the town’s Conservation Commission erected open space signs along the trail, also known as the “Chester Main Bridle Trail,” in anticipation of opening it to the public.

But last year, owners of property adjacent to the trail approached the town selectmen and claimed that the trail originally was meant to be private — for the exclusive use of the abutting property owners and Pickwick Farm, which has an easement to the tracts.

North Stonington's selectmen asked the Conservation Commission to cease its work on the trail, and in July the Planning and Zoning Commission sided with homeowners in the Chester Main Estates subdivision, ruling that the trail was intended to be maintained and managed by a homeowners association for private use.

Because the original transfer of the land to the town was done at a town meeting, First Selectman Shawn Murphy said Thursday, town officials decided to use a public referendum to decide whether to reverse the decision.

"We thought we would let the people decide," Murphy said.

No homeowners association exists for Chester Main Estates. A stipulation of the proposed transfer of the parcels would require the subdivision property owners to create such an association within 90 days after town officials approve the transfer. The property owners have agreed to the stipulation.

The second question on the ballot will decide the fate of the former Red Horse Nursery School, the first Montessori School in eastern Connecticut. Residents will be asked to allow the first selectman to take any action necessary toward the abatement and demolition of the building, known as Greene Gables, that once housed the school on the town-owned Hewitt Farm property.

Town officials and members of the North Stonington Historical Society have determined that the building, which has been vacant since 1997, needs several emergency repairs to stabilize it and contains hazardous materials that would require abatement.

The historical society was asked to provide the town with proposed uses for the structure, but the society missed the six-month deadline it was given last year. Lacking a concrete plan for the building, most of the members of the town’s Hewitt Farm Committee agreed in February that they were in favor of demolishing the structure.

However, the historical society in April requested the town grant the society a conditional lease of the building for $1 a year so the society could stabilize the structure and begin fundraising efforts to restore it. The society's members argue that the building, which was once the home and art school of notable photographer Fred Stewart Greene, is culturally and historically important. The group had led a successful effort to get the building on the state Registry of Historic Places.

Still hoping the building will be spared, the society says it will commit $10,000 of its own money to stabilize the structure.

The society envisions Greene Gables as an education and visitors center, a gateway to the 104-acre Hewitt Farm property. It also proposes activities, some in conjunction with the Denison-Pequotsepos Nature Center, to highlight the wildlife and natural features of the area.

“Towns that preserve and protect their history and culture thrive and are progressive,” society President Frank N. Eppinger wrote in the April request.

Eppinger said Friday that with the current financial troubles in the state, the town shouldn't spend money on the demolition when it could be used to support the schools or the new emergency services building under construction. Funds to support the stabilization and restoration of the building can be sought from local grants and philanthropists from southeastern Connecticut and southern Rhode Island, locations heavily documented in Greene's works.

"We think that Greene Gables could be to North Stonington what the Florence Griswold House is to the Old Lyme area," he said.

But Murphy said he supports the building's demolition.

"We've had this in discussion now since 2012," he said. "The historical society has never brought forward answers to questions that the selectmen had — what it would be used for, is it feasible, how much would it cost. After all this time, there's no real good plan or anticipated funding source."

Murphy said if voters decide they want the building demolished, the work likely would be completed before this winter.

"If not ... it will sit for a long time until finally the selectmen do see a plan," he said.

Neither ballot question has generated much interest beyond the groups and individuals that would be directly affected by the outcome of the vote, Murphy said. Both are relatively niche issues, and participation in public meetings on both questions has been limited, he said.

"... We've been discussing each of the issues for ... years," he said.

Day Staff writers Martha Shanahan and Amanda Hutchinson contributed to this report.

Editor's Note: The name of the subdivision is Chester Main Estates.


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