Engineer: Historic Grafton church a safety hazard

  • An engineer has advised the Town of Grafton, N.H., that the Peaceful Assembly Church poses a “significant hazard to public safety” due to structural problems caused in a 2016 fire. A crow flies over the building, where roof damage has worsened over the winter, Sunday, March 10, 2019. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 3/10/2019 9:27:34 PM

GRAFTON — The historic meetinghouse on Route 4 that was heavily damaged in a 2016 fire now poses a “significant hazard to public safety,” according to an engineer hired by the town to determine the building’s structural integrity.

The Peaceful Assembly Church is “structurally compromised” and there’s a risk that either its roof or ceiling could collapse, Wilder-based engineer Timothy Schaal said in a Feb. 15 letter to Grafton officials.

Schaal’s findings bring into question whether the structure can be saved after its been left largely unprotected from the elements for years, with just a few tarps covering large holes in the roof and walls.

Schaal noted the tarps during a Jan. 24 trip to Grafton, and said holes in them potentially left the building “open to the elements for at least 20 months,” likely causing rot.

The engineer said the 2016 blaze, which killed church founder John Connell, resulted in “extensive damage” to the building’s roof, several walls and the bell tower.

Using photographs, Schaal also determined the attic had partially collapsed, leaving the building “heavily compromised.”

Because the building remains on private property, Schaal made observations off PAC grounds and outside the church itself.

To protect the public, he recommended the building be boarded up to prevent anyone from entering. “All work should be done from the outside,” he wrote and underlined in his letter to the town.

Schaal said a more comprehensive structural assessment should be performed before anyone re-enters the building, and efforts should be made to weatherize it.

However, it’s not certain to what extent those will be followed.

The town sent a letter to church leaders and last Sunday, a few came up to lock doors and boarded up holes in the building, said Selectboard Chairwoman Jennie Joyce on Sunday.

A message left for David Kopacz, who is listed as chairman of the Peaceful Assembly Church, was not returned on Sunday.

Joyce said the town can do little but watch the building further deteriorate and wait for an ongoing lawsuit to play out.

“We’re just waiting on the court date. There isn’t much we can do at this point,” she said.

An April 3 hearing has been scheduled to discuss a lawsuit brought by the town, which argues church leaders failed to abide by a 2016 agreement to repair the building in return for tax exempt status.

That deal set a December 2016 deadline to weatherize the structure, while exterior repairs were to be completed by 2017.

But in court filings, the church denies the agreement is being broken and says the property is still being used “for carrying out its regular religious activities.”

If the church were to be demolished, it would result in the loss of one of Grafton’s most historic buildings.

The 1797 church was built by Grafton Congregationalists who didn’t want to share an existing meetinghouse with the town’s Baptists, according to the New Hampshire Preservation Alliance, which listed the structure on its 2017 Seven to Save list.

Its floors were divided after passage of the Toleration Act of 1819, a state law that called for the separation of church and state, with town business limited to the first floor and church services on the second.

The arrangement continued until 1963 when the own offices were relocated. The building was sold in 2010 to Peaceful Assembly Church and was occupied until the 2016 fire.

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.

Correction

An engineer has advised the Town of Graft on that the Peaceful Assembly Church poses a “significant hazard to public safety” due to structural problems caused in a 2016 fire. An earlier version of a caption with a photograph on this story incorrectly described the engineer’s report. 




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