The York Town Hall, left, and First Parish Congregational Church sit next to each other. Town officials have been negotiating with members of the church for access to the abutting land to expand the town hall. Credit: Rich Beauchesne | The York Weekly

YORK, Maine — Even as the town negotiates with First Parish Church officials over a lease of land for a Town Hall addition, a document has surfaced that indicates the town, and not the church, is believed to be the rightful owner of not only the Village Green property where the Town Hall is located, but of all the church’s so-called glebe land in downtown York.

The Old York Historical Society document, a timeline that was shared with the town and procured by the Weekly, gleans information from court records, town meeting minutes, deeds, state statutes and other historical data. According to the timeline, the town appears to have always had ownership of the historic Village glebe land — long assumed to be owned by the church.

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The current-day glebe land includes about 65 acres behind Town Hall stretching to Coastal Ridge Elementary School, in addition to the Village Green. That land abuts First Parish Cemetery land, which in turn abuts the Davis property.

Glebe land also includes a portion of the cemetery behind Town Hall and the church; the land underneath the church parsonage, parish hall and offices; the Old Burying Ground; the land underneath the Old Gaol, a town building; and the land underneath the Emerson-Wilcox House, Jefferds Tavern, the Remick Barn, the schoolhouse and Ramsdell House – all properties of Old York Historical Society.

Neither Town Manager Steve Burns nor Board of Selectmen Chairman Todd Frederick would comment when asked directly about the document, saying only that negotiations are continuing with First Parish Church. Attempts to reach First Parish Church officials were unsuccessful on Tuesday.

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The timeline dates back to the earliest days of York’s founding as Gorgeana in the 1600s. At the time, the town and the church were synonymous. Under Puritan law, the “municipality and church were the same entity. By the 1720s, this land (downtown York and extending down to York River) was considered to be church glebe land, but it was still owned by the municipality — the town of York,” according to the document.

In essence, the town raised funds to run the church, pay the minister’s salary and build whatever structures were needed to support it.

By 1713, the selectmen were selling this “common land” to various private individuals, according to the timeline. There were no First Parish Church records before 1731, because First Parish wasn’t established as a parish prior to that. Anything before that is in selectmen’s minutes. No document has been found indicating the town deeded this land to the church.

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When Maine became a state in 1826, a law was passed that “any lands reserved for the use of the ministry of the first settled minister where fee has not already become vested in some parish, fee and estate is to be vested in the inhabitants of such town and not in any particular parish therein.”

In 1833, the town appointed a committee to ascertain who owned the land underneath and surrounding Town Hall. The subsequent report stated, “It is very evident that neither the parish nor the settled minister have any claim to any part of the land which is now called the parsonage land by virtue of any title derived from a vote of the town of York.”

It concludes by stating: “Not a shadow of a doubt exists on the minds of your committee that the right of the soil under and around the Court House (town hall) is in the town of York…”

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If in fact the town owns the glebe land, one of the most immediate implications would be the expansion of Town Hall.

In April 2018, First Parish Church officials told the town it had no interest in selling land to the town for that purpose. The following summer, the town commissioned an appraisal to determine value of the property, which was set at $385,000. That report also determined a reasonable amount for the town to pay to lease the land — $28,000 annually. Church officials and the town, however, were not able to agree on the terms. According to Frederick, the church counter-offered a lease amount that he termed “exorbitant.”

Frederick said Selectmen Robert Palmer and Liz Blanchard have been negotiating with the church ever since, so far without any resolution.

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An expansion of the existing Town Hall should meet all zoning requirements, the selectmen learned Monday night. Town Planner Dylan Smith told the board municipal uses are allowed in the village zone, and the project will meet lot coverage and setback requirements.

If the town intends to expand at the Town Hall site, the Planning Board will probably take a hard look at parking requirements, he said. Further, the town should undertake a traffic study, he said. And because it’s in the historic district, the Historic District Commission must approve the plans as well.