Court awards small town ownership of mile-long green

By Pat Eaton-Robb
Associated Press

LEBANON, Conn. (AP) — A generations-old question over who owns the mile-long green at the center of the eastern Connecticut town of Lebanon has been resolved after two years of negotiations and court hearings.

The green, little changed from the days when French troops camped on it during the Revolutionary War, is the center of community life in the town of just over 7,200 people.

It is hayed each year by farmers. In the winter the town turns part of it into an ice skating rink, giving the community the look of a Currier & Ives Christmas card.

But several years ago plans to expand a library that sits on the southern edge of the green were thwarted because a legal document dating to 1705 showed the green actually belonged to the “heirs and assigns” of 51 original proprietors, the 17th and early 18th-century investors in the property.

The town’s historian estimated that is probably about 10,000 people, a majority of whom would have to sign off on any changes to the usage of the land.

It was an arrangement that had helped keep away the kind of development that has swallowed up town greens around New England.

But residents decided at a 2017 town meeting that it was time for Lebanon to fight for ownership.

The town filed a claim in Superior Court and put a notice in local newspapers for any “heirs or assigns” who may have wished to come forward with a claim of their own.

Lebanon First Selectman Betsy Petrie said none did.

Petrie said the negotiations among lawyers for the various stakeholders got contentious at times.

As a result, she said the town, its historical society, local church leaders and property owners got together without the lawyers and worked out a solution, then invited the attorneys back in to put it all on paper.

This month a Superior Court judge in New London signed off on the last piece of a plan that gives ownership and control of most of the land to the town, while allowing the 14 property owners who line the green to own their front yards.

The library was given 1.6 acres for its potential expansion; two acres are expected to be assigned to the First Congregational Church of Lebanon, which sits on the green’s south end.

The town also agreed to easement restrictions with the local historical society, which Petrie said will prevent any strip malls or fast food restaurants from popping up along the green.

“It’s a little bit complicated, but in essence, the green as you see it today will stay as it is and it will be owned by the town,” Petrie said. “The town will continue to maintain it as we have for centuries and the farmers who live around it will continue to hay it, as they have.”

Numerous historical buildings, now tourist attractions, line the green. They include the homes of Revolutionary War-era Gov. Jonathan Trumbull and William Williams, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, as well as Connecticut’s Revolutionary War office, which was visited by George Washington, the Marquis de Lafayette and heroes of the American revolution.

Petrie, who isn’t running for re-election in November, said the town spent about $270,000 in legal fees and other costs to secure ownership of the green. But she said the other options were to leave the ownership question unresolved or allow the state to come in and either take the property by eminent domain or dictate how it is maintained as a historical site.

“We didn’t want that to happen, because we see how the state maintains some of its other properties,” Petrie said. “It doesn’t mix with our local ideas, so we didn’t want any state involvement.”
 

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