Court rules in favor of Firefly Farm owner, with restrictions
Published July 22. 2015 6:54PM Updated July 22. 2015 9:23PM
By Lindsay Boyle
North Stonington — Some say it's not a true compromise unless everyone is a little unhappy.
That might be the case with Tuesday's New London Judicial District Superior Court ruling regarding a lawsuit the town waged versus Van Brown, owner of Firefly Farms, in May of 2013.
The decision — handed down by Judge Susan Connors — is complex, and the end result of almost four years of legal back-and-forth.
When Brown in June of 2011 bought the almost 135-acre property at 96 Button Road — which formerly was home to YMCA Camp Anderson — he was aware of a clause in the original 1972 deed that could cause a snag: the land, it said, should go to the town for open space should the YMCA cease to own the property.
But, after seeking the advice of multiple attorneys and learning about events of the late 1980s — a land swap, a town meeting and a land record file that released the reverter clause on part if not all of the property — Brown decided to go ahead with the $345,000 purchase.
It was just three months later, in September of 2011, that the town sent Brown a letter suggesting the clause in the original deed may make his purchase null and void.
Now, in an effort to "seek a method or result which as nearly as possible effectuates the intent" of the original deed, the court has ruled that Brown and his wife, Beth Tillman, can keep the property.
"Due to the history surrounding the treatment, care and ownership of this subject property," the ruling reads, "it has become impracticable for the Town to hold the property for use as open space."
As such, Brown and his family must adhere to open space restrictions on both parcels of the property as they continue to operate Firefly Farms, which raises and works to save endangered breeds of livestock.
What is known as the 92-acre parcel, although that is not exact acreage, is now subject to an open space restriction mandating that it must always be used for agriculture, as defined in Section 1-1(q) in the state's general statutes .
The town, the ruling reads, is to "have no further interest in and release any further claim to said '92-acre parcel.'"
On the other parcel, a bog-like piece of land of about 35 acres, the limitations are more strict.
Brown and his family are not allowed, among other things, to remove trees, disrupt ground or surface water flow or build structures on the property without approval — not to be "unreasonably denied" — from various North Stonington public bodies.
Brown said he is happy despite not getting the "clear title" he originally sought and being responsible for a portion of several hundred thousand dollars in legal fees. His insurance company, Chicago Title, paid for one of the two involved lawyers, he explained.
"I wish the town would've worked with us so that the town would've gotten $100,000," Brown said, referring to an offer he made in February of 2013: if the town had yielded its claim on the property, he would have given North Stonington $100,000, on the condition that $50,000 of it be spent on open space elsewhere in town.
The town, First Selectman Nick Mullane said, didn't accept the $100,000 because being named in the reverter clause of the original deed, despite what has happened since, came with a responsibility.
In 1988, residents voted at a town meeting to release the reverter clause on 28 acres of the land, which eventually was swapped for the about 35 acres now in Brown's possession.
However, in the "release of reverter" the town filed in 1989 — without first contacting the attorney general or seeking court approval — there are references to the entire YMCA property.
"It was our responsibility to try to fulfill the intent of the gift (to the YMCA) to keep it in the open space category," Mullane said. "We thought that, if we sold that out, that would not send a good message to anybody else who gives land to the town or puts land under the town's custodianship. I felt we had to do this."
The town, too, is stuck with fees for the town attorneys — first Frank Eppinger, then Rob Avena — used throughout the years. Mullane put the total cost at more than $40,000.
"We hope (the Tillman-Brown family) will honor the conditions" of the court ruling, he said, adding that the town will monitor a portion of the property annually.
Over the years, the concern most regularly at the forefront of public discourse was whether Brown and his family had other intentions for the land, such as building housing on the property.
But Brown has said and continues to say his only hopes for the property are to farm it and to one day be able to build a house somewhere on it for his son and farm manager Dugan Tillman-Brown.
"I think it is a great agreement between the state, the town and us — it's balanced," Brown said. "If everybody feels a little bad about it, then it's probably a very fair agreement."