Universalist church requests lease from Saco
The issue regarding the church, located at 60 School St. in Saco’s Historic District in the southern part of Pepperell Park – technically city land – first came up in October 2016 when church officials considered making renovations and repairs to the building. Before it was to conduct the repairs, church officials wanted to clarify ownership.
“As we move toward our 200th birthday and enter into a plan to do extensive repairs and restoration to our building, we want to start with the good foundation of having some sort of official understanding of our position regarding the buildings and the surrounding land,” according to a Dec. 27, 2016, letter from church officials to Mayor Ronald Michaud.
Saco attorney Tim Murphy, in a written statement that contained his legal opinion, determined that the land on which the church is situated is likely owned by the city, not the church.
The ambiguity surrounding land ownership where the church is situated has been persisting since the 19th century, when it was built. According to an October 2016 letter from church members to Michaud, Second Parish Unitarian Church was erected in 1827 when its Meeting House was constructed. Members of the church asked the city for land to build a parish hall next to its Meeting House in 1867, which was completed.
When Second Parish and First Universalist Church of Biddeford decided to consolidate in 1964, they wanted to move to one of their buildings. They hired local attorneys to look into the title of the Second Parish Unitarian property. These attorneys were not successful in securing the title, according to the letter.
Due to the lack of proof of ownership surrounding the buildings on School Street, the churches decided to sell the Biddeford church and restore and add to the Saco church. In 1970, they built an annex that joined the parish hall and the Meeting House – again with no paper assuring them of ownership, but with apparent permission of the city, thus indicating probable city ownership.
“The church has raised this issue from time to time over the years,” the letter read. “If there was ever some kind of document about this, we have not located it . . . In 1867 we asked permission to build a parish hall next to the Meeting House – again no documents. Once more in the early 1970s we built a connector between the two buildings – apparently with some kind of OK from the city of Saco.”
City Councilor Eric Cote of Ward 6, who provided assistance to the church on the matter, collected and reviewed records at York County Courthouse, the city, Dyer Library/Saco Museum and the Unitarian Universalist Church, according to a letter to the mayor from the church in March. None of the records turned up any transfer of property from the city to the church, according to the letter.
In the same letter, members of the church’s acquisition committee requested that the city grant the church the title to a parcel of land on School Street that surrounds church buildings.
Cote said at the April 10 city council meeting that the church requested a lease through the city, not ownership, since this is what has historically been done. If the church is sold or goes out of business, the land would revert back to the city. City councilors expressed unanimous interest in the leasing option.
The option for lease at least partially fulfills a recommendation made by Murphy. In a letter to City Administrator Kevin Sutherland containing his legal opinions regarding the matter, Murphy states that, “The lease of land does not divest the city of fee title, but would allow the church to secure exclusive use of a clearly set/ defined area for its own benefit. The lease could be set for as low as $1 per year, renewing automatically upon payment of another $1 each year thereafter. This can go on for years. The lease would need to set out the use restrictions but those would not bother the UU Church . . . This may be the best immediate and most cost effective option for the UU Church.”
It’s unclear what the lease terms would be or how much it would cost the church to lease.
Michaud said a boundary survey will need to be conducted to understand the exact premises of the land, which Cote said the church will pay for at no cost to the city.
“If it’s OK with city council, a surveyor (will be contracted) by the city to survey the land, map the boundary and come back with a lease and describe what exactly is being leased,” Cote said.
The council agreed with no opposition.