Chester Maine Bridle Trail neighbors seek return of land in North Stonington
North Stonington — A parcel of land the town had planned to use as a hiking and bridle trail may be returned to a group of abutting property owners, after they expressed concern with how the land was given to the town to selectmen at a Sept. 30 meeting.
The land, which has been referred to as the "Chester Maine Bridle Trail," encompasses two small 30-foot-wide parcels of land along Chester Maine Road just north of the village.
The dispute centers around when what was called the Coates Farm was subdivided into multiple residential lots for a development, called the Chester Maine Estates, in 1995.
Jonathan Edwards, who operates a winery under his name on Chester Maine Road, explained that the original marketing material advertising the residential development on the site spoke of a bridle trail for the exclusive use of the residents of the development.
However, the land never truly belonged to the residents. Instead, it belonged to developer Dwight Kettlehut, who listed it under a company called Development Associates, according to a title search by Town Attorney Frank Eppinger.
A covenant and original plan that was supposed to go into effect when a homeowner's association was formed also dictates the ways in which the neighborhood would govern itself, and says changes to the subdivision must be "for the betterment of Chester Maine Estates." The association was never formed.
In 2005, as Kettlehut was moving out of town, he approached the town and asked if it would be interested in taking over the two parcels, which eventually were accepted at a town meeting.
Eppinger said at the time it was not made clear in the paperwork that the parcels were intended exclusively for residents of Chester Maine Estates — with no reference to restrictions or covenants.
"It's a simple, straightforward deed," he said.
Edwards said he had only heard that the parcels, which sit immediately behind his property, would be open to the public two years ago. He said there are a number of "nuisance issues" with horses being allowed on a trail that would come to a stop along his property, which includes horses interrupting weddings that take place at his winery, as well as privacy, liability and land value issues.
There was "always an established intent that this was to be used for the private landowners," Edwards said. "Somewhere down the line, Kettlehut decided he was done with the property."
First Selectman Shawn Murphy said his primary concern was that the issue not cost the town money. He said the town might be sympathetic to the abutting property owners, considering not all of the information was before the town; however it might be a tough sell to give away public use of the land.
At the meeting, Murphy informed the property owners that they would need to file a petition with the town clerk to bring the issue to a town meeting.
The Conservation Commission had been working to bring the trail up to standards until Murphy ordered the work to stop in mid-September pending more information about the history of the parcels.
Edwards also wanted the town to "improve communication of land use issues," which was echoed by other Chester Maine Road residents at the meeting.
In an interview Friday, Edwards said he would be trying to canvass the neighborhood to get the required signatures to trigger a town meeting on the issue, where he would present his case again to the public.
Edwards and nearby residents would need to determine whether they wish to have the parcels deeded back to the proposed homeowners association, or added to abutting parcels.
Conservation Commission Chairman William Ricker was present at the meeting, and said that the committee did not know about the original development marketing materials.
"We did not have this information at the time," he said. "Even though I think we have the legal right (to use the property), there's a level of fairness that has been overlooked in the past."