Last-Ditch Occupy Suit Seeks Proprietors’ Demise

Thomas MacMillan Photos(Updated 2:41 p.m. with Proprietors’ legal defense.) As the final showdown nears for Occupy New Haven, protesters’ attorneys went to court Tuesday to try to save the encampment on the Green—and took aim at the little-known quasi-public, quasi-private quintet that actually owns the park.

Civil rights attorney Norm Pattis filed motions in U.S. District Court on Church Street seeking a restraining order and injunction preventing the city from enforcing an order to remove the tents and 30 or so protesters stationed there since Oct. 15 as part of the nationwide anti-corporate “Occupy Wall Street” movement.

Pattis also filed a complaint asking the court to remove title to the Green from the group known as the Proprietors of the Green. The complaint also seeks to dissolve the group. The emergency complaint is scheduled to be heard Wednesday morning at 10 a.m. before U.S. District Court Judge Janet Hall in Bridgeport. It’s filed on behalf of eight occupiers: Erin Mitchell, Danielle DiGirolamo, Josh Smith, Donald Montano, Alexander Suarez, Ty Hailey, Ray Neal, and Josh Heltke.

Click here to read the suit.

The official name of the group targeted by Pattis’s complaint is The Committee of the Proprietors of Common and Undivided Lands at New Haven.

Its members, not the city, own the 16-acre New Haven Green, including the upper half, where dozens of anti-corporate protesters and homeless people have been camping out. The proprietors joined the city in welcoming the occupation last fall and through the winter. They joined the city in deciding to issue a notice to the occupiers Monday telling the remaining occupiers that they have until noon Wednesday to fold up their tents and leave—an order at least some occupiers are vowing to defy.

The public doesn’t elect the Proprietors. They elect themselves. For life.

Just as New Haven’s occupation has differed from almost all others—its hardy souls have lasted in their encampment through the winter, and city officials have worked with them to keep peace rather than oppose them, until now—the group at the controls is a breed apart, as well. Not quite public. Not quite private. And, when people get to know them, far from the villainous caricatures of the “1 percent” elites targeted by the Occupy movement.

Harold Shapiro PhotoIts members have officially owned the Green and chosen their successors since the early 17th century. The group began with the original settlers of New Haven Colony. The state legislature affirmed their descendants’ legal right to control the Green in 1683, then again in 1723. (Read more about that history here.) And to some extent control has stayed in the family: One of today’s five proprietors, Anne Tyler Calabresi (pictured), descends from the original proprietor Theophilus Eaton, who founded the colony along with John Davenport. (Click here to read a story about her favorite, rebellious ancestor from that period: Theophilus’s wife Anne.)

Pattis’ complaint charges that the group’s very existence and its ownership of the Green violate the state constitution.

“The New Haven Green is owned by descendants of the founders of the City of New Haven. The plaintiffs contend that the Green is a public trust, analogous to riparian lands, and therefore the public enjoys equitable title to the Green. It has for time immemorial been used as a location for public meetings of all kinds,” the complaint reads, in part.

“The seemingly hereditary, private and cloistered manner of selecting members of the Proprietors and giving them lifetime appointments for the purpose of governing a public trust violates Article First, Section 18 of the Connecticut Constitution, which states: ‘No hereditary emoluments, privileges or honors, shall ever be granted, or conferred in this state.’”

The city’s move to remove the camp is an “overbroad response” to the occupation for which there is “no justification,” Pattis said Tuesday. It’s simply a part of the city’s “annual Potemkin-like effort to make the city look nice for visiting Yalies.”

Close Coordination

City corporation counsel Victor Bolden released the following response to the lawsuit Tuesday afternoon: “Unfortunately, rather than recognize that the New Haven Green is public space for all, several members of the Occupy New Haven protest have filed a lawsuit, essentially seeking to declare it private property for use as they see fit. The consequences of allowing them to succeed would be to deny every one in the New Haven community and elsewhere the enjoyment of publicly available land now and for the foreseeable future. As a result, the City of New Haven opposes these efforts. Hopefully, the courts will agree.”

The Proprietors’ chairman, Drew Days, gave the Independent an extensive rebuttal to Pattis’s legal claim (printed in full later in this story). He based the argument in part on actions the state legislature took in 1929 to repeal obsolete statutes but which kept the Proprietors’ ownership intact; in part on a claim that “the Green is not and never has been a public square of the City, as are the other parks.”

Both city officials and the head Proprietor said this week that they’ve been working closely on the occupation controversy and are in agreement about how to proceed.

Besides Calabresi, the Proprietors include Chairman Days, a Yale law professor emeritus and former Clinton Administration Solicitor General, and a lifelong civil-rights activist and the first African-American member of the group; U.S. District Court Judge Janet Bond Arterton, who made a career in private practice defending workers’ rights; Albertus Magnus President Julia McNamara; and retired banker Robert Dannies.

You rarely hear about the group. It doesn’t issue press releases or give public talks or invite the public to observe its work. Its unpaid members do feel they are fulfilling a civic duty to preserve an important public space in the public interest.

They meet quarterly at the New Haven Museum (formerly the New Haven Colony Historical Society) to decide major issues involving the Green. Otherwise they leave it to the city to police the Green and make day-to-day decisions about permits and uses.

Occupy New Haven changed that. In recent weeks Drew Days, the Proprietors’ chairman, has been in regular phone contact with city Chief Administrative Officer Rob Smuts about how to deal with the occupy protesters. Days even came in person to City Hall last month to debate the issue, respectfully and openly, with occupy protesters. (Click here to read all about that.)

It’s hard to tell just whom to credit or blame for official decisions—or whom to sue, as the occupiers’ attorney put it—about the Green’s use. Both Days and city officials say they’ve been operating on the same page: Support for the occupiers’ rights to press their cause in public; and a conviction that the Green is not a camping ground for one group to dominate indefinitely.

“The Proprietors are conscious of the Green as a public marketplace for the expression of ideas,” Mayor John DeStefano said Monday. “The Proprietors are just like everyone else—like city government, like most residents—[in concluding that] it’s time. Everyone’s pretty much arrived there. The Green and the other parks weren’t meant to be permanent residences.” DeStefano said he believes the Proprietors “play a unique and appropriate stewardship role. We clean it. We have a lot to say what happens there.”

“The Green is one of the 10 most attractive public spaces in America. There have been awards. We’ve gotten plaques about that,” Days said in an interview Monday. “There is something very special about the Green.”

Irving Pinsky, a lawyer for Occupy (who asked Days and Smuts whom he’s supposed to sue, and didn’t get a straight answer), disagreed about the appropriateness of a largely secret group owning the city’s central public space. He called the arrangement “one more example of the colonists running America.” He also decried the group’s historic ties to Yale; he and others at the occupation claim the city has moved to evict the encampment because Yale graduation and the Festival of Arts & Ideas is approaching. (The city responds that in warmer weather it wants to make sure other people have equal access to the upper Green.)

And yet, Pinsky has only praise for the Proprietors themselves.

“This bunch of Proprietors are really good. It’s a real tragedy that my friends at Occupy have to go against people who are lifetime workers for the betterment of America,” he said. “Drew Days—who’s better than him? His whole life has been in civil rights and helping people.”

Been There

Days, who’s 70 years old, said he sympathizes with the protestors’ plight. He said he knows what it’s like to try “to convince the public that you have genuine convictions and you want those convictions to be known, and you’d like to see those changes in society.” He said he has experienced that feeling for decades since he went as a law student to Albany, Georgia, in the mid-1960s to help civil rights attorney C.B. King battle segregation. He found himself alongside protesters battling police or committing disobedience, often as their attorney, sometimes as a participant.

“There was a problem with a luncheonette that refused to serve mixed-race groups,” Days recalled. “We went down to look into that issue. Some of us ended up marching with the protesters. They brought forth the “Blue Angels,” the Georgia State police. [Without them] we would have been completely wiped out.

“I’ve been in a number of demonstrations like that either as a lawyer or a protester.”

He has also played the role Pinsky might play this week—representing someone arrested in a public park by police, in this case police sent by the city and the Proprietors. In the late 1970s Days represented a Vietnam vet whom police beat up and charged with resisting arrest after he stormed a concert on horseback in Central Park, Days said.

But he said he believes the Supreme Court has made clear that sleeping in tents in parks without a permit is not a protected exercise of free speech; he cites the 1982 case Clark v. Community for Creative Nonviolence. He said he believes that whatever the merits of the occupiers’ arguments against the country’s economic and political order, that doesn’t justify “depriving other people of a free and happy use of public spaces.”

The occupiers argue that they’re not depriving people of that use. Chances are that debate will continue after an expected uprooting of the encampment Wednesday.

Might that debate find its way into Days’ law school classroom?

“I haven’t taught First Amendment issues in a while,” Days said. “But it’s quite possible.”

Meanwhile, while it might not be clear on legal grounds whom Pinsky should sue, if he indeed files a suit, a practical consideration offers an answer for any action seeking monetary damages.

According to the Proprietors’ most recent Form 990 tax form, the group doesn’t have much in the way of net assets. It reported having $45,625, to be exact. It reported raising $203,725 in total charitable contributions over five years. Click here to read the form. The group keeps its money in a fund at the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven.

In the mid-1980s the group initiated a campaign to fund a dramatic refurbishing of the Green. It keeps some money on hand to help with special projects like the recent repair and stabilization of the 1907 Bennett Memorial Fountain.

The group didn’t become a not-for-profit until 2002. It never thought it needed to. It didn’t think it needed money because, according to Days, it always had free legal help; longtime Proprietor C. Newton Schenck was a partner in the white-shoe New Haven firm of Wiggin & Dana.

Then Schenck passed away, and the group prepared an application to the Internal Revenue Service for not-for-profit status.

The IRS responded, in effect, “I’m sorry. We don’t understand,” Days recalled. The agency asked when the organization was started and by whom. “We said 1649. And Charles The First.

“They were not amused. Mostly bemused, I think.”

So the Proprietors tried again. “We wrote back and said, ‘We just take care of a park. We’re pretty innocuous.”

Then the IRS said yes.

* * * *

Following is Drew Days’ response to legal claims made in Tuesday’s motion by attorney Pattis:

The question that you raised [whether the Proprietors truly own the Green and whether their existence violates the state constitution] is complicated and requires a complicated answer.

The following historical account should provide you with some understanding of the role of the Committee of the Proprietors.  It is drawn quite liberally from a talk given by a former Chairman of the Committee, Newton Schenck, in 1990.

In 1638, the tract of land settled by John Davenport, Theophilus Eaton and their followers (New Haven) was organized as a plantation and those who raised funds and materials for settlement were called “free planters” and retained an identity as “proprietors,” separate from the subsequent town organization.  These “ free planters” held title to the soil of the colony and had the right and responsibility to divide and convey or use all their undivided and common lands, which they did until there was little left but the Green.

By 1723, an Act of the General Assembly confirmed the previous land grants made by the proprietors and recognized that the descendants of the original proprietors might claim all remaining common and undivided land “to be the proper Estate.”  Furthermore, they were recognized to have “full power….to regulate, improve, manage and divide such Common Land in such Manner and Proportion as they shall see good.”  However, it also provided that the power to divide and set out lands did not apply “to any lands sequestered for Town Commons…” In the 19th Century, the descendants of the old proprietors were a scattered and unrecognizable group.  Therefore, in December, 1805, such proprietors as could be gathered in meeting voted to appoint a self-perpetuating committee of five members, with power to alienate the remaining property which still included more than the Green.

On the petition of the aforesaid Committee, the Connecticut General Assembly, in its 1810 October Session, passed a resolution that “the powers of the Committee given by them by said vote be, and the same are hereby confirmed and established, and that any alienation or conveyance which they have already made or which they may hereafter make in performances of those powers shall be good and effectual in the law, to convey the estate of the said proprietors therein to the grantee or grantees thereof.”

In 1868, the City Charter granted that year vested the Court of Common Council with the entire management and control of all public squares of the City and that provision continues in subsequent charters.  In 1929, the Assembly passed an act repealing as obsolete certain statutes that had dealt with certain aspects, such as public notice of meetings, of action taken by town proprietors generally with respect to Common Lands. Nevertheless, the Committee of the Proprietors in New Haven has exercised its jurisdiction on the grounds that it continues to have title and control   - -  presumably because the Green is not and never has been a public square of the City, as are the other parks, and because the statute repealed by the Assembly in 1929 did not repeal its resolution of 1810.  In short, the Committee views itself as holding the Green in trust for the people of New Haven.  In so doing, it relies upon the resources of the Parks Department of the City of New Haven to issue permits for specified uses and events under rules prescribed by the Committee from time to time. Its members serve for life and is a self-perpetuating body. In other words, once a member dies or resigns, the successor is chosen by the remaining proprietors.

Thomas MacMillan contributed reporting to this story.

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posted by: anonymous on March 13, 2012  1:48pm

Does the City currently receive PILOT reimbursements on the value of this property?

posted by: acumen on March 13, 2012  1:51pm

I walk through that area and see the devastation. This “grass roots” movement has destroyed the real grass in the park. As it seems the 99% would have to pay plenty for this experiment.
It is time for protesters to get out. I agree with some of the demands and disagree with others.  But there probably remain avenues of discourse that are less destructive to that common property. Let’s clean it up and start talking.

posted by: robn on March 13, 2012  1:51pm

Yes, Lets give the Green back to the “people” we can camp out, kill the grass, and then maybe build a big underground parking lot beneath it.

posted by: Peace in the streets on March 13, 2012  2:17pm

Just this past Sunday I, along with the estimated 325,000 spectators, came to downtown to enjoy the annual St.Patrick’s Day parade. As the parade finished, the group I was with settled into a nice, sunny and very grassy section of the Upper Green within perhaps 50 yards of the Occupy Camp. There was ample space to relax and enjoy such a beautiful day along with the thousands of others who passed by and at no time was the green crowded with people searching for a place to sit. I am certain that the ever struggling Arts and Ideas Festival will not come close to drawing the numbers of people into town as the parade did in a single day. I am also certain that the small space the Occupation utilizes would not inhibit others from enjoying the open and public space the green offers. my two cents

posted by: getyourfactstraight on March 13, 2012  3:19pm

Oh this is quite enough now. The occupiers need to find a new way to protest and fresh ways to keep pressure up regarding their beliefs. Sorry guys…. I think you have had ample time to plan step B and move off the green.

posted by: cedarhillresident! on March 13, 2012  3:33pm

everybody sing…..

posted by: Babz Rawls Ivy on March 13, 2012  3:47pm

This is great stuff.  This is what America was founded on….  The right to collective protest.  That Green ought to see some action like this and Norm Pattis is AMAZING! The Proprietors are equally impressive.  This is how to civilly disagree.  This is a teachable moment for our kids and other folks who love the language of the law and who want to grasp a bit of history in the making.

Each school in the city ought to have field trips to the Green and allow students to have conversations with the Occupiers.

That Green will survive a little grass beat down, but will we survive not trying to come closer to understanding the divisions that separate us?

posted by: Anderson Scooper on March 13, 2012  4:34pm

In this 21st century, five self-important people think they deserve to “own” the New Haven Green? Based upon what? Some elitist feudal tradition that should have been extinguished a century ago?

Yes, a board of stewards for our public square/park might make sense. But the Five Proprietors? Secret meetings, lifetime appointments, the clubbiness of it all? Ugh.

posted by: hrsn on March 13, 2012  5:30pm

i>In this 21st century, five people think they deserve to “own” the New Haven Green? Based upon what?</i>

Wait, you don’t mean five protestors from Occupy?? Seizing property in the name of one’s political beliefs seems kinda self-important to me.

The Proprietors are legally established, long confirmed, acting for the common good (not just their political friends), and doing a good job.

posted by: helloworld on March 13, 2012  5:44pm

Unless the “owners” closed the green 1 day a year completely for the past 12 years; which they haven’t. Then the taxpayers and people walking on it everyday own it i.e the city through “adverse possession” law.

posted by: Proud New Havener on March 13, 2012  7:55pm

This is pretty shocking to me—the Proprietors have done nothing but good for this city. No one has ever called into question their stewardship of the New Haven Green before. They have done an excellent job.

It is misguided for the Occupiers to try to get rid of such a beneficial organization. If the Occupy campout was on New Haven Land Trust land, would they try to dissolve them too?

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on March 13, 2012  8:11pm

If the city were to ever gain ownership on the Green, it would probably sell it to Yale the next time there’s a budget deficit, like what was done in the early 90s with the lease of High and Wall Streets, in addition to the 99 year lease of the flower-bed part of the Broadway median and the sale of the parking lot from the last couple years.

posted by: robn on March 13, 2012  8:24pm


Unless the proprietors are complete @$^0//$ and decide to build skyscrapers on the green, they’re going out of their way to preserve it as a de facto commons, free from political influence. Common use of the green is our inheritance that remains intact, even if a somewhat noteworthy demonstration overstays its welcome and is asked to leave.

posted by: robn on March 13, 2012  8:42pm



posted by: Anderson Scooper on March 13, 2012  9:06pm

@ JH & Robn—

What popular city-owned park has been touched for land development in the past fifty years? I find the argument that the Proprietors are “preserving” the Green quite specious. New Haven’s town square would never be sold for development, or to Yale. To suggest so seems almost absurd. (imagine the political fallout).

@ Proud New Havener—

In what way have the Proprietors done a great job of stewarding the Green? Curious to hear your thoughts. Personally, I could imagine it in much, much better condition, and I rue the downturn in public concerts.

Anyway, that’s not the point. The people of New Haven own the Green, not some upper echelon of academic and corporate boardroom types, who self-appoint fellow glitterati to their exclusive lifetime club.

posted by: mm on March 13, 2012  9:12pm

@hello world

Apparently you do not know the laws of adverse possession.

In CT adverse possession does not attach in 12 years, but 15 years.

The fact that the Proprietors of the Green did not exclude the public for one day each year does not equal adverse possession by the public.

Someone seeking to gain ownership must hold themselves out to the world as the owner of the property in an open and notorious way and to the hostile exclusion of the true owners.

No one has held themselves out as owners of the New Haven Green in an open and notorious manner, such as paying for all maintenance WHILE barring the proprietors from entry and use of the green.

posted by: robn on March 13, 2012  10:25pm


Mmmm, actually; there was serious consideration in the (70s I believe) toward putting an underground parking garage below the green (no joke). The proprietors said no.

posted by: Anderson Scooper on March 13, 2012  10:55pm


Public opinion said no? Or was it that our Green was “saved” by the wise Proprietors?

Maybe it’s just my inner democratic American, but I think we can do just fine without the protection of the gentry. Feel free to disagree.

posted by: Anderson Scooper on March 13, 2012  11:28pm

PS—@ Robn, ;) ;)

Parking under the Boston Common? Who knew?

Still amazed that anyone believes our public parks can’t survive without the dutiful lifetime stewardship of the elite.  Because of course they have…

posted by: helloworld on March 13, 2012  11:34pm

mm, thanks for explaining… still no different if 15 years. The notorious you speak of is the paid city workers maintaining the property on a daily basis while enforcing security and the city wide public traveling it everyday all day. Also once a public property these rules currently do not apply.

posted by: Dean Moriarty on March 13, 2012  11:46pm

Complaint 16 is why this filing has no merit. The “occupation” HAS in fact interfered with and interrupted use of the Green by other members of the general public.  The fact that it “occupies” space there is clear testament to that. Say I wanted to go and sit in the sun on the first warm day we had in February. Right in the exact same spot that your party was having a picnic lunch.  Well, I would have no right to that spot, obviously.  But what if your lunch party had been sitting in that same place for the last four months? Then the situation becomes quite different.
  Then there’s the claim that it occupies only a “small portion” of the Green. Who defines/declares what is “small”? Only you?
  I don’t believe this filing will fly. But I do believe that after the dust has settled the City of New Haven would be wise to file a counter claim against all the named Plaintiffs and attempt to recover the financial damages that have accrued since October and that the already tax burdened residents are ultimately responsible for. Of course, given today’s ultra-Liberal climate I have doubts of that happening.
  I feel too that the City should be conscious of the vast amount of public opinion that has been published in the social media. Contrary to ONH’s claims, this published opinion trove clearly shows that the majority of New Haven residents have wanted Occupy off the Green since late Fall. That should also be presented to the Court.

posted by: Gretchen Pritchard on March 14, 2012  6:40am

The headline, “Last-Ditch Occupy Suit Seeks Proprietors’ Demise” literally, means that the suit seeks the deaths of the Proprietors.  I don’t think that’s what you meant.  At least I hope not.

posted by: William Kurtz on March 14, 2012  9:03am

On one hand, the idea of a public space being ‘owned’ by a private, secretive, self-perpetuating 5-member group seems a little, well, elitist but on the other hand, it seems like the proprietors are managing the Green well. Hard to argue with success. It would be interesting to see what would happen were there to be a conflict between what they and public officials wanted for that space.

Still, you have to appreciate the irony of a group descended in spirit, if not always in biology, from the original ‘Occupiers’ of the New Haven Colony using the rule of law to push out people doing more or less what was done 400 years ago.

posted by: mm on March 14, 2012  10:26am

@hello world

the time factor is unimportant…..

The proprietors have not been excluded from use of the green for 15 CONTINUOUS years.

Government CANNOT take title by adverse possession. Government needs to go through the legal process of eminent domain to take property and pay ‘market value’

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on March 14, 2012  1:46pm

Anderson Scooper,
1) Bayview Park in City Point was sold to the State for the construction of the Connecticut Turnpike.
2) Waterside Park formerly on Water Street was sold for private development after Sargent Co. moved to Long Wharf.
3)Part of the English Mall in Fair Haven was sold to the Federal government for the construction of Quinnipiac Terrace.
4) York Square was sold to Yale.
5) Part of the Goffee Street Park was given to the Florence Virtue Housing Development.
5) Most of Broadway Square has been leased.
6) Part of Beaver Ponds Park was sold for subdivision and developmenta long Sherman Parkway.
8) Hamilton Square on Hamilton Street was sold to a private company (I think).

The Proprietors may not be the best way to make decisions about the Green, but I don’t think the city has a particularly good track record either. It’s an interesting subject.

posted by: Anderson Scooper on March 14, 2012  3:43pm

@ JH—

Nice list. I mean wow, I guess we should be exceedingly worried about the future of Wooster Square and particularly the very developable College Woods in East Rock?

Imho, you’re pushing an argument to near absurdity. The fact that land was taken for an Instertate, or that some under-used New Haven parkland was redeveloped, well, it has little to do with the future of our fairly sacred Town Green.

Btw, if you are truly worried about anyone trying to sell the Green, you might worry more about the Proprietors, one or two of whom helped deliver New Haven Savings Bank to New Alliance btw.

Finally, if we want to debate the absurd, tell me who is more likely to sell the Upper Green to Yale? A Mayor of New Haven with the consent of the Board of Alders, or the Yalies who currently dominate within the Five? If they do in fact own the 16 acres, (I don’t think they do), what’s to prevent them from doing something stupid with it, particularly when a couple of them don’t even live in New Haven?

PS—I feel like we’re stuck in an argument about keeping the Electoral College, or the penny even…..

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on March 14, 2012  5:14pm

The scenario of the city selling the Green to Yale should they one day own it is an absurd one. That comment was initially meant as a lighthearted jab at the city’s inability to balance budgets without somehow leasing public land to Yale. However, there is a valid point behind it, in that there’s a strong argument that the proprietors of the green have been better stewards than the city when it comes to making decisions about their parks.
The list I submitted is a pretty good indicator that the city may not be the best stewards, and to that list you could add the De Lauro sculpture in Wooster Square, which many neighbors were against. Whether or not the proprietors are a legitimate owner is a different argument from whether or not they have been good stewards.
I have no interest in who governs or how the green is governed so long as it is done appropriately and well. In my opinion, the proprietors have done a good job so far, and it could be a huge mistake to turn over complete control of the green to the city who doesn’t have the best record. If there’s another proposal for its ownership, I’m all ears and look forward to seeing how this court hearing plays out.

posted by: bbtn on March 21, 2012  8:06am

The Occupy Wall Street followers have made their point publicly for months.  We get it!  Time to move on.

The Proprietors of the New Haven Green have done a very good job of keeping this space intact and available FOR ALL - quite literally for centuries, as this article says.  Their very existence over time has prevented this huge park land to become developed.  (Just imagine the cries and laments if the city of New Haven owned it outright and decided one day they need more money to fund their budget…)

I have no problem seeing them continue in this role for centuries to come. They have demonstrated over the years they are responsible stewards of the green.

Simply look to how long they have tolerated the intolerable and inconsiderate actions of the occupy wall street followers.  Again, we get it OWS.  Now it is time to move onto better and more productive matters in your lives and leave the rest of society to handle the “1 percent”.