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Church unswayed by pleas to save parsonage

By Jordan Bailey | Sep 13, 2017
Photo by: Ethan Andrews The First Congregational Church congregation voted to demolish its former parsonage, foreground. The Varney Memorial Building and the church can be seen behind it.

Brooks — Despite extended arguments and a few tears from concerned community members, trustees of the First Congregational Church “do not foresee revisiting” the congregation’s decision to demolish its vacant parsonage, an 1873 building that served as a hotel in the town’s heyday.

The town’s comprehensive plan, written in 2003, emphasizes the importance of the village center's “historical charm" and sets policy to maintain its historic character, but there are no ordinances regarding privately owned historical buildings and no permits required for their demolition. Some residents feel the community should have a say in the fate of historic buildings in town.

Ray Quimby, a member of the church's board of trustees, said the decision was “not something anybody relishes,” but that the building has become a liability. The church had to dip into savings to balance the budget last year, and more money is spent on buildings than on anything else, he said, even more than on its mission.

The trustees are responsible for three buildings on the 3.9-acre property: the Congregational Church, the Varney Memorial Building, and the parsonage. Also on the property is JP Wentworth’s General Store and gas station.

Quimby said with limited resources, the trustees had to prioritize maintaining the buildings that are in active use. No ministers have lived in the parsonage since 2011, and the last tenants moved out in 2016. By contrast, the church, which needs to be reshingled, has an active membership and regular services, and the Varney Memorial Building is used daily as a community space by church members and non-members alike. It is used as an emergency evacuation point for Morse Memorial School, a meeting space for Alcoholics Anonymous, a yoga studio, and a space for community parties, among other things.

Since 2016, the trustees have been reviewing options for the former parsonage — selling it, renting it out, tearing it down, or leaving it vacant — and have presented those options to the congregation. At a meeting July 23, the congregation voted unanimously to tear it down.

After news of the decision hit the general public, one Brooks property owner wrote a letter to the trustees and The Republican Journal, urging that the building be saved. The trustees called a community meeting to present their rationale for the decision and entertain other suggestions.

To about 30 people gathered at the Varney Building the evening of Sept. 6, Quimby explained that upkeep of the parsonage was once shared by five churches whom the minister in residence served, but now the Congregational Church bears the full responsibility for the building, and its minister does not live there. Leaving it vacant costs the church $3,600 per year in taxes and insurance.

Rehabilitating it as a rental property would cost an estimated $60,000, he said, and the property would lose a $25,000 valuation exemption. Selling it would mean losing the land, which Quimby said the trustees “could not in good faith do looking forward.”

On the other hand, he said, tearing it down would eliminate the taxes and insurance costs, and the land, as part of the church property, would become tax-exempt. He said the land could be used for a new septic system, and for parking.

Adding complexity to the complex is the fact that all four buildings share a septic system and water, which is pumped from a well next door through the parsonage to the other buildings.

In a change of pace, Betty Littlefield, 91, who lived in Brooks her whole life and served as president of the Historical Society for 15 years, then sat at the front of the room and told stories of the building’s history and of the Rose family who owned it. The family built it as a public house in a style that was elegant for the time, and welcomed guests from 1875 to 1887. It was reopened in the 1920s by younger Roses.

“I just felt that I wanted to open your eyes a little about the importance of that house during those years to the town and the travelers,” she said. “It’s the last one of our great hotels that were running during the age when Brooks was at its greatest — during the days of the railroad and the pants factories and the vests.”

Town Clerk Jane McLaughlin then stood and said, choking up, “I just came from Stacy’s house which is coming down this week, and it just breaks my heart that we’re losing these old buildings. I just wish there was a different way.” (The oldest house in Brooks is also scheduled for demolition next week.)

Most outspoken among the opponents in the audience was Littlefield’s daughter, Andrea Lucien, who lives in Old Town but owns a house in Brooks, and who wrote the letter to the trustees that prompted the meeting.

With an upbeat persistence, Lucien presented a vision, or pipe-dream to some, of monied buyers from out of town seeing the building’s potential, sprucing it up and building it into something that can draw people to the community. Possibilities, she said, include a nursery school, group antique shop, Airbnb rental units or an animal shelter.

She pointed to other historic buildings in town that have been saved: the Pilley House, Fogg building where the Town Office is housed, and Marsh River Theater.

She suggested that through its deed the church could require new buyers to restore the building and develop it into a community use, and to maintain the shared water system. To improve its appeal, she suggested the church spend the estimated $15,000 it would take to demolish the building on painting the exterior, then list it and see what happens.

A real estate agent in the crowd argued that Lucien’s vision was unrealistic; if buyers were to buy the property for the amount Lucien suggested it could fetch ($175,000), they would want the whole thing, with no strings attached. Further, she said, buyers with deep pockets prefer to be closer to the coast.

Lucien said similar things would be possible even for middle-income buyers on a shoestring budget, but over a longer time frame.

Lucien tried a number of tactics to win over the stony-faced trustees, even bursting into song. “Don't it always seem to go, that you don't know what you've got 'till it's gone. They paved paradise and put up a parking lot,” she sang, from Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi.”

She pointed out the irony that the Rose family was instrumental in saving the Congregational Church building in 1898, several of whom donated $10 ($281 in today’s dollars) each to have it moved to a new location.

She addressed the audience and said that those who are members of the both the church and the historical society must have been going through inner turmoil in casting their vote for demolition.

Two church members spoke in defense of the decision. One said the land would be better used as a parking lot but suggested the building could be moved.

Lucien may have hit the trustees and church members where it hurt when she said that although it has no legal obligation to do so, “I think the church has a moral obligation to let everyone in this town help determine the fate of an historic building.”

At this, Quimby interjected, speaking as a resident, not as a trustee, and said that the church has no legal obligation, whether in its by-laws, in town ordinances or in state law, to involve the community in the decision. As for its moral obligation, he said he feels an obligation to the people of the community, who use the Varney building and the church on a regular basis, to make decisions that allow their use of those buildings to continue.

Further, he said, “I feel that we have a moral obligation to those that have gone before to practice good stewardship for the buildings that we’re responsible for and be able to pass them on to the next generation whoever that may be in as good a condition as we found them."

After the meeting, Quimby told The Journal that the congregation's decision still stands, but if someone has a viable proposal for saving the building, the trustees would be happy to consider it.

"It would have to be soon," he said. "We'd like to get this taken care of this fall."

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Comments (2)
Posted by: Brian Callahan | Sep 14, 2017 07:21

If the "community" wants to save the building that badly, then pony up the money, fix it up, and maintain it. Put your money where your mouth is.

Posted by: Jennifer Hill | Sep 13, 2017 09:01

Sad moment in Brooks' history. It does seem like the town could do something for the old building, mitigating the taxes somehow. How about tearing down the Varney and using the historic building instead?

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