YORK, Maine — Selectmen on Monday night voted unanimously to support a settlement with First Parish Church over disputed land in York Village, paving the way for next steps including a vote of the church congregation this Sunday.
The action came after three members of the board — Mike Estes, Liz Blanchard and Todd Frederick — told the audience that they were congregants at First Parish Church. But all three said they did not believe this would constitute a conflict of interest in casting their votes as selectmen. This decision was made after resident Mark Toney said during public comment that he felt all three should recuse themselves.
The board also voted 4-0 that chair Todd Frederick did not have a conflict of interest in his capacity as the superintendent of the First Parish Cemetery. Frederick did not vote on this motion. Members said the cemetery association that employs Frederick is a separate 501(c)3 nonprofit organization.
With regard to both matters, selectman Mike Estes said it was also important to remember that the selectmen “are not the final say. The only thing we are doing is putting this forward to a public hearing. The voters of York will have the final say as to whether this is agreeable. You’re going to have plenty of time to voice your opinion between August and November, and let [the] chips fly where they may.”
At issue is a recent settlement proposal put forth by town and church officials that will for the first time give deeds to land in York Village that has long been considered belonging to the church. The town will get a deed to the land around Town Hall for an expansion, and the church will retain its ownership of much of the rest of the land.
The selectmen’s decision to move the matter forward came after several residents earlier in the meeting strongly suggested the board take no action Monday night.
David Chase said the settlement proposal is “an enormous step in the right direction.” Still, he said, “I hope you decline” to vote Monday night. He said the board should wait until after the First Parish Church congregation votes on Sunday. Even beyond that, the board should wait until after public hearings on the proposal.
“It’s July. Town business is not uppermost in most people’s minds,” he said.
Lindsay Road resident Kinley Gregg raised her own issue. Her front yard and driveway have always been considered First Parish Church land, but she successfully negotiated a quit claim deed for the land not long ago after several years of working with the church.
“I realize now that the church and town were in negotiations for the church property during this time. There was a competing claim from the town that I didn’t know about,” she said. “Does the board have a plan for addressing such situations? If so, what?”
Toney said he felt the settlement is “being jammed through without full transparency. This needs to be fully vetted. If the town owns this land, we need to take time to sort this out,” he said.
But the Board of Selectmen and Town Manager Steve Burns saw it differently. Burns said the town and the church had “two competing legal perspectives.” But he felt it was more important for the town and church to settle.
Selectman Robert Palmer, who was one of two board members on the negotiating committee, said the settlement is a “fair deal and a good deal for the town. This is a 200-year-old issue. The town has been trying to expand town hall for decades and this settlement accomplishes that goal. And it’s done without cost and without divisive litigation.”
The First Parish Church congregation will be voting on whether to accept the settlement this coming Sunday after the service. It is an open meeting. If they approve the agreement, there would be public hearings at the Aug. 12 and 26 selectmen’s meeting. The matter would then be put before voters in November.
If the congregation does not approve of the agreement, the proposal is dead and the two sides would have to go back to the table.