Over nearly 200 years, members of the Orient community have established a special connection to the former Orient United Methodist Church building on Village Lane.
With its hand-carved oak pews, colorful stained glass windows and newly restored traditional church organ, the beauty of the building — both inside and out — is something many locals would like to see preserved well into the future.
With that in mind, the Oysterponds Historical Society is working with the Peconic Land Trust to prevent the property, where services ceased in March 2016, from being sold to private interests. If all goes according to plan, the trust will soon purchase the property from the New York Conference chapter of the United Methodist Church and the historical society will lead fundraising efforts to pay that money back to the trust.
OHS and the Peconic Land Trust reached an agreement last month and the trust is currently negotiating with the church, which had listed the building for $950,000 shortly after its congregation voted to merge with North Fork United Methodist Church.
“It was something that we hoped might be possible, but the fact that it actually came together is huge,” OHS director Elsbeth Dowd said of the partnership with the trust.
Earlier this year, OHS conducted a survey to gauge the Orient community’s interest in preserving the landmarked 1836 building. Out of close to 300 respondents, 89.2 percent said they support the effort and 62 percent said they’d be willing to support it financially.
The Peconic Land Trust has since agreed to use its revolving fund, known as the Peter Jay Sharp Fund for the Environment, to purchase the church and hold it for the historical society, which would be responsible for only 10 percent of the negotiated purchase price.
Melanie Cirillo, director of conservation planning for the Peconic Land Trust, said the fund is used when conservation opportunities require immediate action to meet the constraints of the seller. They often use this money in collaboration with individuals or other organizations to achieve conservation goals.
Under the agreement, the property will belong to the Peconic Land Trust, but the historical society will be responsible for all management, utilities, maintenance and repairs.
“This model has been successful in protecting other landscapes where we resold protected farmland to a farmer,” Ms. Cirillo said. “In the case of this property, we would resell to a community organization as a historic public space.”
As a revolving fund, the money used to purchase the church would need to be paid back to the trust within three years.
Ms. Dowd said the historical society has already raised close to $100,000 from individual donors and she expects the sale to be finalized “any day now.” OHS also hopes to secure grant funding to cover about half the remaining costs.
“What a loss we think it would be if this property wasn’t able to be saved from private development,” she said.
Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell said he thinks this plan to preserve the church is a “win-win.”
“You have two great organizations coming together and protecting what is a local historic asset,” he said. “I think it’s wonderful.”
Bob Hanlon, president of the Orient Association, said the church is a cornerstone of the historic buildings in Orient Village and contributes to what makes the hamlet so special.
“We really do have a community character that is built upon historic buildings,” he said.
Mr. Hanlon added that the park on the church property, known as Hallelujah Park, creates open space along the street that he thinks is lacking in the community.
He also said he thinks that if the property were to fall into private hands, it’s likely the park would disappear.
Ms. Dowd said the building would be used for “appropriate community activities” after it is preserved, adding that the historical society wouldn’t want to compete with the types of events hosted at neighboring Poquatuck Hall.
Orient resident Bob Black, owner of the neighboring Old Orchard Farm Store, said he wonders whether Orient might become just a collection of historic properties and about what types of events might occur at a preserved church. He said he wouldn’t want to see the property used for commercial interests.
“I think we lose our neighborhood as buildings become institutionalized,” he said.
For that reason, Mr. Black, while saying he still supports preservation efforts, questioned if it would be such a bad thing for the church building to be sold as a private residence.
In Greenport, where the United Methodist Church congregation also voted to consolidate with North Fork United Methodist Church, plans are in the works to convert the structure into a single-family home and create additional housing on the property.
Ultimately, Mr. Black said, he just wants to see the Orient property move forward in the best way possible.
For Ms. Dowd and many others, that means preservation.
“This is going to work out,” she said. “I’m so happy about it.”
File photo credit: Barbaraellen Koch