Wilton selectmen asked to weigh in on land dispute

The stone house at 52 Millstone Road is at the center of a dispute between the property owners and the Wilton Land Conservation Trust. — Bryan Haeffele/Hearst Connecticut Media
The stone house at 52 Millstone Road is at the center of a dispute between the property owners and the Wilton Land Conservation Trust. — Bryan Haeffele/Hearst Connecticut Media

A dispute about a conservation agreement has landed its way to the Board of Selectmen.
The board was asked at its meeting on May 6 to support an amendment to a conservation agreement for 48-52 Millstone Road, which would allow a cottage on the property to be classified as a residence and the property to be subdivided.
At the outset, First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice explained she was presenting this issue to the board as “a concept,” and the board would not be voting on the amendment that night.
After lengthy discussions with attorneys on both sides of the issue, and an executive session, the board voted to allow the first selectwoman to continue negotiations toward the proposal to amend the agreement.
At issue is a 2002 conservation agreement between Richard and Marybeth O’Brien Stowe — the owners of 48-52 Millstone Road — and the Wilton Land Conservation Trust and town of Wilton.
The property in question contains 21.19 acres and three buildings — a house with a stone facade, a cottage and a barn. Those buildings occupy four acres of the property.
Under the conservation agreement, the remaining acres are restricted from development and are to remain open space.
Representing the Stowes, attorney Matt Mason of Gregory and Adams asked the board to agree to amend the conservation agreement subject to approval by the land trust.
He noted the land trust was “not on board” with the amendment at this time, but if the selectmen approved it, he would continue to work with the land trust for its approval.
Mason pointed out there were a number of errors in the agreement, such as the incorrect street address for the property, and asserted additional errors did not match the intent of any of the parties.
The major issue, he explained, was the classification of the cottage.
The Stowes want the cottage carved out from the main house lot as its own residence, and be allowed to increase it in size from 1,000 square feet to 2,500 square feet.
Under zoning regulations, the cottage is classified as an “accessory dwelling,” not a residence. Zoning regulations do not allow two residences on one lot.
The cottage should be classified as a residence, Mason argued. He pointed to language in the agreement which referred to “two residences” on the property. Under the agreement, he said, the Stowes thought they had two residences.
He said the agreement was also defective for the land trust and town of Wilton because it offered them no protection of the main house, which is included on the Wilton Historical Society’s Historic House Survey, which dates it from 1932 and describes it as “eclectic.”
He said there was nothing in the agreement that would prevent the Stowes from tearing that house down and putting up a large “McMansion” type home similar to one across the street.
If the conservation agreement is modified and clarified to allow for expansion of the cottage, Mason said the owners would agree to several things:
1. The primary residence on the property would be designated as a Wilton historic property as part of the Bald Hill Historic District and as such would fall under the rules and procedures of the Wilton Historic District and Historic Property Commission.
2. The Stowes would limit the overall size of the main residence (square footage to be determined).
3. The cottage would fall under the rules and procedures of the Wilton Historic District and Historic Property Commission. That residence would have a size restriction of no more than 2,500 square feet.
4. The Stowes would work in conjunction with the town and the land trust on a project to restore the fields on the property by removing undesirable trees and plants. Those areas would be mowed once or twice a year creating a sustainable open space and maintaining the vistas along Millstone Road.
Approval by the three parties to this proposal would allow the Stowes to seek subdivision approval from the Planning and Zoning Commission.
Land trust
Attorney Keith Ainsworth, attorney for the land trust, said while there was a scrivener’s error in the conservation agreement regarding the address of the property, the property description attached to it referred to 48-52 Millstone Road. “That error does not invalidate the document,” he said.
He said the agreement clearly states the property shall not be subdivided. “It says the property may not be divided, partitioned, or subdivided. That’s pretty unambiguous,” he said.
When the transaction occurred, he said, all properties were represented by legal counsel and therefore no one could say they didn’t understand it.
From the land trust’s perspective, he said, the agreement is “a valid document” and is clear about “what you can and cannot do.”
He said the main house and the cottage are both occupied by people, one by the owners and the other by renters, so they can be referred to as “residences” from that viewpoint. But under zoning regulations, he said, the cottage is classified as an “accessory building,” not a residence.
“They [the Stowes] want to expand the cottage, but under the terms negotiated with the land trust and the town, they can’t do it. They can’t subdivide it. There is an inherent value to maintaining the integrity of an entire parcel as a single parcel. It stops the segmentation of the property,” Ainsworth said.
Further, he said, donors to the land trust expected the property would not be subdivided, and they would require an explanation as to why “what they bargained for at the time didn’t come true,” he said.
He said he hoped the town would stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the land trust in this matter.
After the meeting, Vanderslice said the land trust is focused on land preservation, which the Board of Selectmen recognizes.
However, looking at the issue from the town’s perspective, she saw value in protecting the main stone residence, which was being offered by the Stowes in their proposal.
“There is value to saving this unique house. If replaced with a large ‘McMansion’ like across the street, that section of the street would look completely different. We want to preserve that house,” she said.
The matter will be discussed further at a future selectmen’s meeting.