Court rejects group’s effort to regulate town green church
HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — A Connecticut appeals court ruled Friday that a local historical society cannot try to impose its conservation rules on a congregational church that dates back to 1700 and is located on the celebrated Lebanon Town Green.
The ruling by the state Appellate Court is the latest chapter in years-long legal proceedings over who owns the mile-long green and how to shield it from development that would harm its historic character.
As a result of those proceedings, the Lebanon Historical Society has conservation authority over 95% of the green, meaning any construction and property improvements must adhere to its building rules and restrictions. But the First Congregational Church of Lebanon is on the 5% of the green the society does not control.
In a lawsuit filed in 2019, the historical society is seeking authority to regulate the remaining 5%, saying it needs to be protected like the rest of the green. The church argued that just because the society controls adjacent property doesn’t mean it has legal standing to try to impose that authority on the property where the church buildings stand.
Three judges on the Appellate Court on Friday upheld a lower court ruling in favor of the church. They said the case has implications for property owners statewide.
“To hold otherwise would allow the holder of a conservation and preservation restriction on one property to interfere with a neighbor’s use of its property because the holder of the restriction finds the neighbor’s use in some way offensive,” Judge William Bright Jr. wrote in the ruling. “There is simply no support in our statutes or common law for such a proposition.”
The historical society intends to appeal the ruling to the state Supreme Court, said Leslie King, one of its lawyers.
“The Lebanon Historical Society has long worked to protect and preserve the rich history of the town of Lebanon and its remarkable town green,” King said in a statement. “It will continue to pursue all legal options to ensure that the entirety of the green, which has for centuries been a unified whole, is protected for public use in perpetuity.”
The state attorney general’s office, which is a party in the lawsuit and supported the historical society’s position, said in a statement that it was reviewing the ruling and considering how to respond.
The pastor of the church, the Rev. Dr. Will Sencabaugh, declined to comment. Mary Mintel Miller, the church’s attorney, said a ruling against the church would have been bad for all landowners in Connecticut.
“It would become a problem not just for this one piece of land in Lebanon, but for towns all over the state if suddenly neighbors can just be unhappy with the way a neighbor is using their property and say, ‘Well, I own the next door property so I should be able to bring ... action.’”
The church, in another court case, is seeking ownership of the 2-acre parcel and has agreed to some restrictions requested by the town.
In 2019, a generations-old question of who actually owns the green was resolved after two years of negotiations and court hearings, giving most of the ownership to the town — excluding the church parcel — and conservation authority over 95% of the green to the historical society.
Beforehand, the green was determined to actually belong to the “heirs and assigns” of 51 original proprietors — the 17th and early 18th-century investors in the property. The town’s historian estimated there could be about 10,000 descendants of the original landowners and most of them would have to sign off on any changes to the usage of the land.
Town officials, in a court case seeking to declare the town the owner of properties on the green, put a notice in local newspapers seeking those “heirs and assigns,” but none came forward.
The green has remained little changed over the past few centuries. It’s lined with several historic buildings, now tourist attractions, including the homes of Revolutionary War-era Gov. Jonathan Trumbull and William Williams, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, as well as Connecticut’s Revolutionary War office, which was visited by George Washington, the Marquis de Lafayette and heroes of the American revolution.
This story originally published Dec. 17, 2021, was corrected Dec. 20, 2021, to correct the position of a lawyer for the church. The attorney, Mary Mintel Miller, said a ruling against the church in the dispute would have been bad for all Connecticut landowners, not that a ruling in favor of the church would have been bad for landowners.