Members of First Parish Church on July 28 unanimously approved a proposed settlement with the town of York. Credit: Richard Beauchesnes | The York Weekly

YORK, Maine — The First Parish Church congregation on July 28 unanimously endorsed a proposed settlement with the town of York that will preserve much of the church’s land in the Village and deed half of the Village Green to the town for an expanded town hall.

The special church meeting took place after the Sunday service with 97 members voting. No one spoke prior to the vote, although several churchwide gatherings have been held in the past month to answer any questions congregants may have had.

Focus now shifts to the town side of the ledger, with the Board of Selectmen holding public hearings on Aug. 12 and 26. The matter would then be put before voters in November.

For the members of the First Parish negotiating team, this congregational vote marks a significant move in a long process. After immersing themselves in Colonial York history, Jeff McConnell and Dennis Wierzba said they are clear that the church had a very strong case — and they felt it was important for residents to know that.

The entire matter began when the town told the church they would like to purchase the land surrounding town hall to expand the building, and asked the town attorney to find the deed naming First Parish as the owner. There is no deed, both the town and First Parish agree, and negotiations centered on that fact.

[Maine town and church sparred over ownership of land in the heart of town. Now they’re nearing a settlement.]

As 21st century sleuths of 17th and early 18th century documents, First Parish and town negotiators came upon several points in history that were discussed. Key to the church was a 1671 document that granted something less than 100 acres in York Village from Little River to Meeting House Creek “for the perpetuall use & benefit of the ministry henceforth unto all succeeding organizations.”

In 1713 and 1714, some of this “common land” was granted by selectmen to private citizens, thus, say town officials, showing that the town had control over the land. There is no record of who received the money for that transaction — the town or the church, church officials said.

But if there were questions about town or church control of the land before, said church officials, a 1723 survey of church land undertaken that year settled the matter from that point forward in their minds. The “Common and Parochial land survey” lays out exactly the land “belonging to the Ministry” that had been granted in 1671, they said. The survey “renewed the bounds” — which did not include the land that had been granted in 1713 or 1714.

Scott Stevens, First Parish member and former Old York Historical Society director, said “a grant is a deed. And after 1723, we know exactly where the church property is. Prior to that, we don’t know who got the proceeds from those early transactions.”

The First Parish members also point to a legal opinion by church attorney Gordon Smith, who references four Massachusetts Supreme Court cases handed down prior to Maine statehood that reinforce the notion that a grant in fee simple from the Colonial period equals a deed. In fact about 90 residents received a fee simple grant from the town for land, in addition to the church. When they went to sell the land, the grant was converted into a deed.

“The town’s argument is that they retained ownership. Our argument is that grant equals deed. No one has ever questioned the church’s right of ownership until last November,” McConnell said. “I think people have accepted the town’s version of ownership. But we want people to know that we have a very strong case that this is our land.”

Wierzba also points to a transaction that occurred after the town granted land to the church on what is now Route 91 for a Second Parish in 1731. Ten years later, the church sold a portion of that land to a private individual and received the proceeds of the sale.

[300-year-old documents show town may already own the land it’s trying to buy from the local church]

Looking at the situation in its entirety, church officials said, they do not dispute the fact that there is not a deed — in fact they probably have the last land in the town that is without a deed. But it’s the interpretation of the law — that a grant in fee simple is equivalent to a deed — that was at the heart of the negotiations.

Still, they said, the town and the church have existed side by side for more than 350 years and they said they wanted to see that relationship continue.

“People who know what they’re doing recommended settlement. The town and the church hired people who know about this stuff, and they said, ‘The court would say, why don’t you settle?’” Wierzba said. “[Selectman] Robert Palmer is right. You can’t split the town over this. Let’s focus on agreement not disagreement and build a better York.”

As the congregational meeting drew to a close Sunday, Rev. Estelle Margarones ended with a prayer.

“What God is saying right now is peace. Peace be with you. Love. Love be with you, and hope, healing and vitality. Continue to be with us and all the people of York as this moves forward,” she said.