Tensions rise over fate of Grafton church

  • 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: 7/3/2019 3:16:37 PM

GRAFTON — Preservationists say a court order blocking the sale of Grafton’s Center Meetinghouse could scuttle their plans to restore the historic building on Route 4.

Members of Mascoma Valley Preservation say a temporary restraining order preventing a sale to the newly formed nonprofit jeopardizes grant opportunities it seeks for repairs. The meetinghouse was heavily damaged in a January 2016 fire.

The legal action might also force Peaceful Assembly Church, or PAC, the building’s current owner, to default on property taxes and further delay renovations, they said.

“We are now at a standstill due to litigation by the Selectboard against PAC,” Mascoma Valley Preservation member Sue Jukosky told Grafton’s Selectboard on Wednesday night. “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.”

Mascoma Valley Preservation inked a deal with Peaceful Assembly Church in mid-June to purchase the 1797-98 landmark for $7,000. Days later, the town requested the restraining order, arguing in court documents that it is entitled to the sale money as part of a May court judgment against PAC.

The church owes the town more than $22,000 in back taxes, attorney’s fees and interest.

Selectboard members said Wednesday that the legal action is meant to protect taxpayers, who could be on the hook for a yearslong legal battle if either PAC or the preservation group is unsuccessful.

“We’re going to try to protect the townspeople from the legal aspect and taking the best (actions) that we can,” Selectboard member Steve Darrow told about 20 people gathered in Grafton’s firehouse. “I think we do all want the same thing, but we have to stick with our legal advice because that’s what we hired, they’re the professionals in this, and I think we’re all in agreement in the direction on that.”

But Jukosky countered that the town’s interests aren’t just financial. She said Mascoma Valley Preservation has also agreed to take on PAC’s legal liabilities, including money owed to the town, if a sale goes through.

“It’s not just protecting (residents) from legal fees and the taxes. There’s way more to it than that,” Jukosky said. “This is an icon of a New England town. This is what makes people appreciate the town and what adds to the property value or takes away from it.”

Jukosky and members of PAC pleaded with the Selectboard during the contentious meeting to reopen negotiations with them to solve their differences out of court. Officials declined, however, saying they’re not interested in considering an amendment to the town’s stance until a late July hearing regarding the court order.

Mascoma Valley Preservation had been on the Selectboard’s agenda for Wednesday but was taken off at the behest of attorneys at Drummond Woodsum, which represents the town, according to Selectboard Administrative Assistant Sue Smith. The group was instead forced to speak during public comment periods.

“We hired our attorney, and we’re going to go by what our attorney says,” Selectboard member Jennie Joyce told the audience.

“But you can’t tell us what your attorney says because that’s secret?” asked former State Rep. Catherine Mulholland.

“Right now it is,” Joyce replied.

Mascoma Valley Preservation and PAC members accused the town of continued animosity against the church. While some hard feelings are warranted, most PAC congregants responsible for legal troubles are long gone, said Paul Vogt, one of the church’s four active board members.

“I’ve got other things to do. I’ve got real work to do. I’m going to have to put a deadline on this for our involvement (in negotiations),” he warned the Selectboard. “I’m trying and if there’s something I haven’t done that I should be doing, please tell me.”

Advocates also pointed out that the town’s intentions for the building remain unclear, and some speculated that the Selectboard hopes to take the property for unpaid 2017 and 2018 taxes and then sell it at auction.

“Not everybody in this town wants to see the building restored,” said Darrow, the Selectboard member. “They would like to see something happen whether it’s torn down or restored. I believe that there’s a pretty good diverse opinion out there about what should happen to the building.”

Darrow’s sentiment was confirmed by resident Gretchen Renee, who presented two petitions encouraging the Selectboard to dig in.

The first petition asks Grafton to break off any negotiations with Peaceful Assembly and direct its attorneys to help maintain the restraining order, while the second calls for the town to demand 2017 and 2018 property taxes and eventually take the building if they remain unpaid.

Renee did not say how many signatures she had collected, but said several copies were still be circulated in the community.

A hearing on the restraining order is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. July 29 in Grafton County Superior Court.

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




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