YORK — The chief negotiators for the town and First Parish Church said they felt little was to be gained and much lost by stubbornly throwing away more than 350 years of coexistence in York Village. And so they recently agreed to a proposed settlement of a land ownership dispute, even though both sides felt they had a strong case.
“You have to think back more than 300 years. The leaders of the church were also the leaders of the town. We want to keep that feeling of partnership,” said Jeff McConnell, chair of the church board of assessors.
“We could have litigated. The board did talk about that. But look at the Paras Pizza and Gammon Lawn Care cases. It could go on forever,” said Selectman Robert Palmer. “And litigation is also divisive. We’re a small town. Do you really want to create that kind of animosity?”
Selectmen are expected at their July 15 meeting to ratify the proposed settlement. But the agreement is still far from a done deal. Church membership has to vote July 28 to approve it. If that vote is positive, the town would hold a series of public hearings leading up to a November vote, which would also have to be positive.
The proposed settlement, terms of which were released to the public last week, establishes “clear ownership” of the so-called Village Green land surrounding the church and town hall, as well as other land in the heart of York Village.
For the first time, deeds would be drawn up giving the church certain pieces of this property and granting the town land surrounding Town Hall, among other property.
The land involved in the proposed settlement has been assumed since Colonial time to belong to the church. McConnell said the town at the time granted land to private individuals, and when deeds were drawn up later, they referenced the grant in order to establish ownership. He said the town granted the church land back when both were one and the same. But no deeds were ever drawn up delineating that property.
As such, according to documentation created by Old York Historical Society Director Joel Lefever, the town and not the church owned the land. The church, however, argues the land was intended for the church because it was granted to the church.
The church and town have been meeting in closed door sessions for about a year to negotiate a solution to this disagreement. The Old York Historical Society was not represented at these meetings because, said Palmer, the dispute centered between only the church and town. However, church land would be offered to OYHS under the proposal.
The OYHS board met Tuesday night after deadline to discuss the matter.
Under terms of the agreement, the church would be granted deeds for the buildings and land that include First Parish Church, the church offices (the old library building), Parish Hall, the Parsonage, First Parish Cemetery and about 65 acres behind Town Hall stretching to Coastal Ridge Elementary School.
On the other side of York Street, the church would own the land under the Emerson-Wilcox House and at the Old Burying Ground, as well as land under and around the OYHS Ramsdell House on Lindsay Road. The buildings themselves are owned by the Old York Historical Society.
The town would be granted deeds for the buildings and land including the Town Hall and Old Gaol. According to Selectmen’s Chair Todd Frederick, the Village Green would essentially be divided in half, with the town owning back to the cemetery fence as well as the parking area and roadway next to the white apartment building next door.
According to the settlement, the town agrees to provide an outdoor stage and publicly accessible restroom facilities, although Palmer said the nuts and bolts of that proposal won’t be firmed up until later. The church and town will also create a maintenance agreement for shared spaces.
OYHS would be offered the land under the Remick Barn, Jefferds Tavern, the old schoolhouse and the parking lot.
Palmer and McConnell said the church and the town entered negotiations with strongly held views about their positions – views bolstered by each side’s attorneys. As negotiations continued, they said, it became clear they should heed the lawyers’ legal advice: “Don’t go to court.”
“They told us it could take years and cost us about $300,000,” said McConnell. “We’d rather spend $300,000 on the mission of our church. Why would we spend that much on this? How Christian is that?”
“Both sides had attorneys who told us, ‘You have a case for ownership. But you should talk and find a way to settle,’” said Palmer. “Compromise has become a bad word. But not to me. Being divisive is not pretty, and you don’t do that in a small town.”
“We should have partnerships, not factions,” said McConnell. “We have so many common interests that can be harmed by getting into fast and hard camps. We didn’t want to do that.”
Frederick and Palmer said they’ve already heard from people who think the church got the better deal, but they disagree.
“When you look at a map, yes, First Parish got a lot more than we did. But what we have is of tremendous value. To us, the land to expand the Town Hall was a critical piece. I think the value of the parcels we received outweigh the volume piece,” Palmer said.