Peters Creek Church legal battle over; possession of property being negotiated
Last week, a Washington County judge put a lengthy legal battle over the ownership of a Peters Township church to rest.
Common Pleas Judge Gary Gilman ruled Dec. 2 that the ownership of Peters Creek United Presbyterian Church lies with a minority group that voted against leaving the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. more than six years ago.
Although the legal battle is over, the parties are now tasked with deciding who will use the property at 250 Brookwood Road in Venetia. Jeff Tindall, who was co-counsel for the “True Church,” or minority group, said the parties are in the process of negotiating the fate of the property.
“The property is held by the True Church in trust for the Washington Presbytery. The question is now if the True Church is going to return to the property or sell the property to the folks in possession of it (those who left the PCUSA) or let the Washington Presbytery make the decision.”
Tindall said Washington Presbytery has taken the lead in negotiations.
“They will decide who will be in control,” he said. “The court case is over. Washington Presbytery and the True Church have won.”
An April 30 Commonwealth Court ruling reversed two prior orders by former Washington County judge Paul Pozonsky that granted possession of Peters Creek United Presbyterian Church to the majority that voted in November 2007 to sever its affiliation with the PCUSA and Washington Presbytery. The group is now an Evangelical Presbyterian Church.
The remaining members, the minority, argued that the actions were contrary to the charter and bylaws of the church. They also claimed that the 2007 vote was in violation of the denomination’s Book of Order ,the constitution and bylaws of PCUSA, and state law. As a result, more than two dozen members who opposed the congregation’s break with the denomination filed a civil case in Washington County Court.
The Commonwealth Court order required the majority faction to refrain from interfering with the use of the church consistent with its obligations as trustee for the presbytery and PCUSA. It also remanded the matter to Washington County Court to dispose of other outstanding details, which was completed with the Dec. 2 order.
Among the details, Gilman determined who would have possession of the church until negotiations are complete.
“The Evangelical Presbyterians shall remain in possession of the property during negotiations toward a resolution of this matter, and the Evangelical Presbyterians shall continue to maintain the property and insurance on the property and to pay all of the expenses of the property on a timely and regular basis,” Gilman said. “The Presbytery shall be responsible for payment of the mortgage obligation or to negotiate with the lender so as to avoid a declaration of a default under the mortgage. The Evangelical Presbyterians will deliver to the Presbytery a set of keys to the property; however neither the Presbytery not the True Church shall interfere with the quiet enjoyment of the property.”
Gilman also ordered the majority to pay the minority for use of the church.
“Evangelical Presbyterians, (effective) Oct. 29, 2014, will pay $3,000 per month, or any portion of any month, to Peters Creek United Presbyterian Church for occupancy.”
The minority has rented property at 800 Venetia Road, Venetia.
Tindall declined to comment on the possible outcomes.
“I’ve consulted with Washington Presbytery. They know what my clients would like to have happen,” Tindall said. “We are counting on them to include these wants in their negotiations.”
Steve Marriner, the attorney representing the Washington Presbytery, declined comment.
Andrea Geraghty, who represents the majority, said the “parties are working together in an effort to peacefully resolve the issue.” She declined further comment.