Guest Column: Orient Methodist Church sale raises many questions

The article in the June 15 Suffolk Times on the proposed deal between Oysterponds Historical Society and the Peconic Land Trust to “save” the Orient Methodist Church building raises many more questions than it answers.

Do I want to save the church? Of course. Everyone in Orient wants to save the church. But save it from what? And for what?

First, let’s put to rest the canard that in the “survey” conducted by proponents the Orient community overwhelmingly supports OHS acquiring the church. There are around 800 legal residents of Orient so a survey of 290 (assuming all are actually residents of Orient and not Brooklyn) is only about 36 percent. Of those 290, 89.2 percent supposedly support the OHS effort. This means 258 respondents support this. At best, this means 32 percent of the community supports this huge change. Hardly a mandate. Even Donald Trump has better numbers.

Why is PLT even considering stepping out of its mandate to fund this purchase? Its mission statement is quite clear that the trust “conserves Long Island’s working farms and natural lands.” How does a church in a hamlet center qualify as a farm or natural land?

Supposedly, PLT has oodles of cash in its “revolving fund” for this effort. If it has so much cash, why is it considering borrowing $270,000 to complete the Edwards land purchase? (See John Henry’s column in the May 25 Suffolk Times)

Assuming the deal goes through, who pays the expenses during the three-year period OHS will have to raise the $1 million it will need? There will be property taxes due, as the church is no longer exempt; property insurance on an old wooden structure; cleanup of dead trees in the park; organ maintenance; and heat for a drafty structure. Will OHS or PLT pay these expenses?

The church is 150 years old and has received minimal maintenance for some time. The foundation needs shoring up. There are no handicapped accessible restrooms. Will OHS pay for these improvements? PLT?

There is no parking on the property. If it is to be used for public events (as some OHS fundraisers have suggested) will part of the “park” be devoted to parking? If so, will the Town of Southold have a voice in this? The Planning Board? Neighbors?

If the property is to be used for storage of valuable artifacts (as some fundraisers have suggested) who will pay the extensive costs of retrofitting the church to accommodate this use?

What will the short-term relationship between OHS and PLT be? Will OHS pay rent? How much?

How will the property be used? So far, OHS has been exceedingly vague about this. One fundraiser and OHS board member told me, “We have no idea what we want to do with it.” Whatever the use, how would this use fit in with Village Lane Historic District restrictions? Will the Planning Board be involved? Zoning Board of Appeals?

What happens if OHS cannot raise the money to complete the purchase in three years? Will PLT sell the property to a private owner? If PLT sells the property at a loss will OHS be required to reimburse PLT for the loss?

If the sale to OHS doesn’t proceed in 2020, what happens to the state, county and town grants (if any)? Foundation money? What happens to the money that OHS has raised (substantial, even though ultimately insufficient)? Is the “close to $100,000” OHS has raised so far to be held in escrow of some sort or paid to PLT as a down payment? If a down payment, will it be recoverable?

What are the income tax ramifications to donors if the purchase is not completed? Will they get their money back? Will they have to file amended tax returns for the years in which they claimed deductions?

If there is an ultimate loss on this transaction will there be “phantom recapture” provisions for donors, especially if PLT has to borrow money to complete the purchase? Will this affect only donors or members of both societies as well?

Certainly there are tax risks. Have donors been made aware of these risks? How about members?

These are but a few of the questions I have about this deal. Do I want the church to be preserved? As stated at the outset, of course I do. But isn’t preservation more likely to occur with a private owner with big bucks who cannot change any of the exterior than with a society that has always had a difficult time raising enough money simply to maintain the many buildings it already owns?

Preservation for the sake of preservation is a luxury that comes with a big price tag and will drain the resources of a little community. I hope both OHS and PLT will take a pass.

• The author is a lifelong Orient resident.

Photo credit: Barbaraellen Koch, file