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Get off whose lawn?

Protestor says Brattleboro doesn't actually own its town common and can’t force him to leave

BRATTLEBORO—What started out as a one-man protest in the spirit of the Occupy Wall Street encampment in Zuccotti Park in New York has turned into a interesting legal dilemma for the town.

Anthony Gilbert, 37, of Ann Arbor, Mich., has been camped out on the common since Oct. 7. Brattleboro Police have politely asked him to leave several times over the past week, but Gilbert has declined to so.

On Monday morning, Gilbert met with Town Manager Barbara Sondag and Police Chief Eugene Wrinn, ostensibly to negotiate a peaceful end to the occupation of the common.

Instead, Gilbert raised a legal question to which the town did not have an answer — who has legal ownership of the common?

Gilbert, who said he had studied for a year and a half at the University of Michigan Law School, did some research and found that the last legal owner of the property was the Centre Congregational Church.

He said that the town never signed off on the deed that would officially give the town ownership.

“I told [Wrinn and Sondag] that the town has no legal authority over the common because the Centre Congregational Church is the last name on the deed,” Gilbert said Monday. “I did a title search, and there is no record of a deed in the town’s name.”

Municipal employees maintain that the town is the owner and thus has the right to enforce ordinances regarding the use of the property.

“As far as the Grand List is concerned, [the common] has been listed under the town’s ownership for years,” said Kate Snow of the Listers Office.

Nonetheless, Gilbert’s claim touched off a flurry of activity at the Municipal Center on Monday.

Snow acknowledged that the church once owned the land, but that the Listers aren’t completely sure who has legal title now.

Seeds of doubt

According to Centre Congregational Church’s website, the congregation bought the parcel of land that now is the common in 1815 and build its first meeting house there.

In 1842, the congregation decided to dismantle the building and rebuilt it at its present location, 193 Main St.

Gilbert said the church isn’t sure whether it owns the property, and he said it is looking into his claim that it still owns the land.

“Deeds weren’t very specific back then,” said Town Clerk Annette Cappy on Monday. “We’re still investigating who exactly owns it.”

“It’s somewhat unclear,” said Sondag on Monday. “There have been rumors over the years that the property hadn’t been properly deeded, but it looks like more of a case of correcting some paperwork more than anything else.”

As a result, enough legal doubt was sown that Gilbert was able to maintain his encampment for the time-being.

Sondag said that overnight camping is not allowed on the common or in any other town-owned park.

“There are certainly good questions raised by this, and the whole issue of the First Amendment and the right to protest versus public order and safety,” she said. “For now, we’re doing more research and asking more questions.”

One-man occupation

Gilbert strung up a green nylon tarp at the northernmost edge of the common, overlooking the Brattleboro Retreat. His bedroll and a few bags with his belongings sit underneath.

For the first couple of days of his stay on the common, he set up an electric griddle and a coffee pot and served free pancakes and coffee to visitors. The town shut off the water and electricity last Wednesday, so he had to give up the impromptu breakfast buffet.

“It gives me something to do,” he said last week. “It’s less depressing than sitting around with no job.”

Gilbert said he grew up in Michigan, where his father was a state policeman. He graduated from high school and served four years in the Army as an ammunition specialist from 1995 until 1999 to earn money for college.

He then went to Walsh College in Troy, Mich., and graduated magna cum laude with a business degree in 2001, the first member of his family to go to college. He tried law school, but dropped out after 18 months.

But he said he hasn’t had a full-time job since 2001, and has spent most of the last few years doing long-distance hikes.

“It was cool for a while, but now I’d like to get a real job,” he said.

He was on the Appalachian Trail this spring, and left the trail in Manchester. He said he worked for food at an organic farm in South Londonderry, but he wanted to try seeing if he could clerk with a lawyer so he could be certified to practice law.

Vermont is one of the few states in the country that allows residents to become lawyers without attending law school, provided they spend 25 hours a week for four years studying alongside a licensed attorney before taking the bar exam.

He said he hiked to Brattleboro looking for a job, but the one place that hired him let him go after a couple of days when the owners discovered he was homeless. He used the money to buy a cell phone and some new shoes, and he decided to set up camp on the common.

“I was hoping the local government would be a little more supportive,” Gilbert said. “I would hate to see them force a protest off a public space.”

But he loves being in Brattleboro.

“My beef isn’t with the town. It’s with Washington,” he said. “Between the lobbyists and the unlimited campaign contributions, the people no longer have a say in how their country is run. The wealthy have too much political power, and too big a share of our nation’s wealth.”

That’s why Gilbert said he started camping out on the common.

“I went to law school for 18 months, and the biggest lesson I learned is how strange it is that so many people have no idea what their rights are,” he said.

“No one’s joined me so far,” he said. “But give it a week or two, and we’ll see what happens.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #123 (Wednesday, October 19, 2011).

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