Grafton Church Will Repair Building, Won’t Have to Pay Taxes

  • After spending time sorting through John Connell's belongings, Peaceful Assembly Church member Tom Ploszaj, of Grafton, N.H., left, talks about the building's history with Brewster Gove, who lives across the street from the church in Grafton, N.H., on Jan. 27, 2016. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Monday, May 23, 2016

Grafton — Town officials and the Peaceful Assembly Church have settled a tax dispute in an agreement intended to help restore the fire-damaged building, which dates to 1798 and long served as Grafton’s meetinghouse.

Under the agreement, the parties agreed that Peaceful Assembly “is a regularly recognized and constituted religious creed and sect” and that the town will abate the full amount of taxes owed on the property at 860 Main St., also known as Route 4.

In return, Peaceful Assembly Church board members agreed to make the building weather tight by December; shingle the roof and complete all exterior work except windows by December 2017; and complete all exterior work by December 2019.

Selectman Merle Kenyon said on Monday the agreement, which the Selectboard signed last month, “was the fairest we could come up with (between) all the parties.

“It was to everyone’s advantage not to drag it out,” Kenyon said.

Peaceful Assembly board members signed the agreement this month.

“We’re really excited about it, and even more so in (agreement) with the town and the locals. We’re really glad to be putting this behind us,” said David Kopacz, the chairman of the board of Peaceful Assembly Church and a Massachusetts resident who owns retirement property in Grafton.

Town officials for several years had denied the church’s application, on religious grounds, for a property tax exemption, saying it was not affiliated with any particular denomination and was founded by a layman, John Connell. Some of its members were drawn to Grafton by the libertarian-minded Free State Project.

Connell, 57, died in a Jan. 12 fire that severely damaged the 217-year-old main church building. State officials are still investigating the cause of the fire.

The tax dispute had been in Grafton Superior Court, and town officials earlier this year contended that Peaceful Assembly owed nearly $14,000 in taxes and fees.

Under the agreement, prepared as a court filing, the town will abate the full amount of taxes and fees due, and the church agreed to make a payment in lieu of taxes of an equal amount if it doesn’t meet the repair deadlines set out in the agreement.

The town also agreed to forgive some $2,000 in attorney’s fees that a judge had awarded Grafton after Connell failed to attend a scheduled deposition.

The agreement stipulates that “each party believes strongly in the merit of their positions” but also wanted to avoid further expenses, litigation risk and “distraction.”

The agreement also noted that the building “has historically been a church and is an important landmark in the town of Grafton.”

Kenyon, the selectman, said Peaceful Assembly members had covered the damaged portions with a tarp and had a dumpster on site and are working to remove debris.

“They have covered the holes to keep the vandals and the morons out,” said Kenyon, a former town police chief.

For his part, Kopacz said Peaceful Assembly has been holding worship services at an outbuilding on the property and plans an open house for Grafton community members to discuss restoration of the church.

“We’re still trying to recover and stabilize the whole thing, and kind of get our feet back under us here. I’m really excited by the outreach I’ve seen from the community,” he said.

He also said he wants to make sure that the appropriate plaster is used in the restoration, to recreate what many members of past choirs had said were exemplary acoustics.

“The sounds that come out of that room are astonishing,” he said.

Kopacz was also heartened by what he initially thought was going to be a fruitless search for old growth American chestnut to repair the church. Then, a Grafton resident who been aided by Connell in the past reached out to Peaceful Assembly and offered the reclaimed wood from an 1800s barn he had taken down, made of chestnut.

“There is a very strong sentimentality and passionate attachment to this building,” Kopacz said. “This is going to be a community effort.”

John Gregg can be reached at jgregg@vnews.com or 603-727-3217.