Editorial: Grafton dispute threatens to condemn historic meetinghouse

  • The town of Grafton in taking Peaceful Assembly Church to court, asking for more than $9,000 in back taxes and attorneys fees because the church hasn't meet deadlines to repair the building. The church burned in 2016, heavily damaging the building and killing founder John Connell. Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2018. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Published: 7/6/2019 10:10:07 PM

That the Grafton Selectboard is threatening to derail an effort to restore the town’s historic Center Meetinghouse for community use is inexplicable. Or, if not inexplicable, at the very least its puzzling stance has not been adequately explained to the public, which is not how decisions are supposed to be made in a democracy.

The meetinghouse, built in 1797-98, was heavily damaged by fire in January of 2016 and has been deemed structurally compromised by an engineer who was asked to assess its condition. As staff writer Tim Camerato has reported, a newly formed nonprofit called Mascoma Valley Preservation has stepped up and offered to attempt to return the landmark building to its former glory. In mid-June, the group reached an agreement to buy the meetinghouse for $7,000 from its current owners, the Peaceful Assembly Church.

The Selectboard, however, has gone to court and obtained a restraining order to block the sale as part of its bitter, long-running dispute with the Peaceful Assembly Church, which owes the town more than $22,000 in back taxes, attorney’s fees and interest. A further court hearing is scheduled for July 29.

The preservation group says the delay jeopardizes its opportunity to obtain the grants needed to renovate the building. Sue Jukosky, a member of Mascoma Valley Preservation, told the Selectboard last week that its efforts are at a standstill because of the pending litigation. “We had hoped that our purchase would have prevented the long, tedious process of the town trying to collect the back taxes and legal fees, and further court and legal fees, and perhaps the auction of the property, which can take several years,” she said.

The Selectboard says it acted to protect the taxpayers on the advice of its attorneys, which it is bound to accept. But legal advice is only that, advice. Elected officials certainly ought to take it into consideration but ultimately must decide for themselves what is in the best interests of the taxpayers.

And Mascoma Preservation has a strong argument. The longer preservation efforts are delayed, the more the building may deteriorate and the more costly it will be to renovate. Moreover, the group has agreed to take on Peaceful Assembly Church’s legal liabilities if the sale goes through, including the money owed to the town.

Moreover, the town is incurring additional legal fees in pursuing the court action without any guarantee, or much prospect, of collecting what’s owed by Peaceful Assembly, which is down to four active board members. And if the building is taken by the town for failure to pay back taxes, there’s also no guarantee that the auction price would cover those costs or that the building would be restored for community use.

No doubt there are lingering hard feelings between the Selectboard and the members of Peaceful Assembly Church as a result of their contentious relationship over the years, but that should not prevent the board from promptly making a clear-eyed assessment of what constitutes the best chance — although certainly not a guarantee — to preserve an iconic building of historical significance and collect the money the town is owed. A years-long delay could constitute a decision by default that the building has to be torn down instead of restored. That would be a shame because an early chapter the town’s history would disappear along with it.




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