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Members of Burned Grafton Church Work to Keep, Fix Building

Thursday, January 28, 2016
Grafton — An ongoing battle over taxes threatens to complicate plans to restore a historic church that burned earlier this month.

A Jan. 12 fire at the Peaceful Assembly Church severely damaged the 217-year-old structure on Route 4 and killed its founder , John Connell.

On Wednesday, Dave Kopacz, chairman of the church’s Board of Directors, said volunteers were coming from as far as Massachusetts to repair the damage. That work will include restorations to the second-floor sanctuary and the opening of a first-floor community center that could include a soup kitchen and meeting space, he said.

“We’ve taken a look at the building,” Kopacz said in a telephone interview, “and although it looks pretty bad, the building was built very sturdily and we’re looking forward to returning it to the way it was in its heyday.”

Looming over those plans is a Feb. 8 deadline to pay $6,000 in taxes needed to avoid confiscation by the town for non-payment of a nearly $14,000 account.

The outstanding bill is rooted in a long-running dispute over whether the church, as a religious institution, should be considered exempt from property taxes.

Town leaders repeatedly have denied the Peaceful Assembly Church’s applications for exemption, and church officials in August 2014 appealed the latest rejection in Superior Court.

Church members, many of whom are participants in the libertarian Free State Project, have painted the issue as a First Amendment right, referring to the protection of religious freedom afforded by the Constitution.

But in court filings, town officials have argued that the church’s lack of affiliation with any particular denomination, along with the informal qualifications of its late founder, disqualify it from exemption.

Beyond denying the tax requests, town officials have taken a laissez-faire attitude to the use of the church.

“I’m not sure if it’s a church or not,” Selectman Merle Kenyon said, “but other than that, anyone who wants to hang out there can do whatever they want.”

If the taxes aren’t paid by Feb. 8, the town could confiscate the property, Selectboard Chairman Sean Frost said, though he added that the decision whether to repair the church or sell it likely would come at Town Meeting, not from the Selectboard.

Given that the church, built in 1798, is “such a historical icon,” he said, “... we wouldn’t decide to rebuild it or decide to auction. That’s not a decision the Selectboard would make.”

Before the fire, Kopacz said in the Wednesday interview, he had a check in hand for the full $14,000; now, in part because of the anticipated cost of repairs, he is cutting a new one for $6,000.

Either way, he said, the payment of taxes does not mean he accepts the town’s decision not to grant an exemption.

“We aren’t acquiescing that the church owes the taxes,” he said, explaining that he was making the payment “essentially under duress to save the church.”

Wednesday afternoon, volunteers already were starting to clean up the mess left by the fire. Tom Ploszaj, a Grafton resident who was friends with Connell and who once served as a director, was outside shoveling away the remains.

Inside, the ground floor was covered in ice and scorched items. As Ploszaj showed a reporter through the building, he pointed out Connell’s bedroom, which adjoined the main meeting space and food pantry.

“I still miss him,” Ploszaj said of his friend. “I’m still getting over it.”

Upstairs, in the sanctuary, the pews were lit by a gaping hole in the west wall. A smoke-stained Bible sat on the lectern, the pages open to Genesis 5.

Ploszaj, who lived in Connecticut before retiring to the Granite State, said he had been disappointed to hear town officials focusing more on outstanding tax payments than on making plans with church directors for the building’s future.

“I’d always heard that New Hampshire was this place where people came together in a crisis,” he said. “I guess that wasn’t true.”

But Kenyon, who is the former Grafton police chief, countered that town officials were letting the church decide on its own arrangements.

“They say they’re going to keep it and try to rebuild it,” Kenyon said of the church directors, “and it’s their property. As long as they keep up with the taxes, that’s all we can ask for.”

He paused, and added, “We don’t have many historic buildings in town, and it’s right on the common, so it’s sort of sad to see it in the shape it’s in now.”

Ploszaj said assessors had estimated that basic structural repairs could cost as much as $30,000; a full restoration to working order likely will be in the six-figure range, he said.

Depending on the outcome of the court case, church leaders may get their tax exemption after all. A trial was scheduled for September, but has since been delayed.

The next hearing is set for 9 a.m. on Feb. 3 in Grafton Superior Court, where the two sides are scheduled to discuss their readiness for a trial.

Rob Wolfe can be reached at rwolfe@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.

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