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St. James church property in Newport is under bishop's control, civil judge rules

St. James church property in Newport is under bishop's control, civil judge rules
The Rt. Rev. J. Jon Bruno is the VI Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles
The Hon. David Chaffee is a Superior Court judge in Orange County, California

JULY 14, 2017

An Orange County Superior Court judge has ruled that Los Angeles Episcopal Bishop J. Jon Bruno has legal control over the St. James the Great church property in Newport Beach, nullifying a claim by the land's donor that it can only be used as a church. The decision basically clears Bruno to sell the property, which he has contracted to do twice since 2015.

The Griffith Co., which donated the land at 3209 Via Lido to the diocese in 1945, raised the deed restriction issue with Bruno in 2015 after the bishop agreed to sell the site to a developer that planned to build luxury townhomes there. Griffith acknowledged that it had dropped the deed restriction on three of the property's four lots in the 1980s to allow for parking. But it maintained that the restriction remained on the fourth lot, the central plot where the building sits.

Judge David Chaffee, however, ruled that "Griffith has no right, title, lien or interest whatsoever in the church's property or any part thereof."

In the judgment, dated Tuesday, Chaffee said, "The court further decrees that the restriction in the 1945 grant deed that the property 'shall be used for church purposes exclusively and no building other than a church and appurtenances may be erected, placed or maintained thereon' (the 'use restriction') is released and/or is otherwise unenforceable and invalid, and Griffith has no interest that is adverse to the church in the property."

The ruling in the secular court is in conflict with restrictions that an ecclesiastical disciplinary panel and the country's highest-ranking Episcopal bishop placed on Bruno in the past few weeks. Both told him not to sell the property while the panel continues deliberating misconduct allegations against him related to his attempted sale in 2015. The sale fell through, but the church gates remain locked.

The hearing panel, acting on a tip from a congregation member that Bruno was trying again to sell the site, issued its restriction not knowing whether he had entered a new sale contract. However, an attorney for Bruno eventually confirmed that he had contracted with Newport Beach-based developer Burnham-Ward Properties in May.

Another church disciplinary board rejected Bruno's appeal of the hearing panel's sanction.

The 2015 sale attempt was the focal point of a three-day hearing in March to determine whether Bruno had acted deceptively and unbecoming of a clergyman when he tried to sell the property.

The hearing panel has yet to issue a decision on the misconduct allegations.


Orange County Superior Court rules Episcopal bishop has authority over disputed Newport Beach property

Deepa Bharath
Orange County Register
July 14, 2017

An Orange County Superior Court judge on Thursday, July 13, ruled in favor of Los Angeles Episcopal Bishop J. Jon Bruno, essentially stating the bishop -- as sole administrator of the property -- has full authority to do as he wishes with the Newport Beach site formerly occupied by St. James the Great Episcopal Church.

When Bruno decided to sell the property in 2015, the move was met with an objection from the Griffith Co., which had donated the property to the diocese in 1945 with the restriction that the site remain a church. The Griffith Co. developed much of Lido Isle since the 1920s.

However, the diocese's lawyers argued that the church in 1985 negotiated removal of that use restriction from the deed, granting the diocese the right to sell the property for other purposes.

On Thursday, the trial court upheld the diocese's claim that there is no restriction on the property.

"The court has decreed what has been known all along, that the property's original donor has no claim on the property title," said diocese spokesman Bob Williams. "In addition, the diocese's top decision-making bodies ... continue to concur that the property should be sold and the proceeds applied to sustaining wider mission and ministry."

It is not known if the Griffith Co. will appeal this decision. An attorney for the Griffith Co. refused to comment Friday.

In June 2015, Bruno entered into an agreement with a developer who planned to build luxury condominiums on the site. That proposal fell through, but the bishop had already evicted St. James congregants who now hold services in a community room at the Newport Beach Civic Center.

Congregants filed a complaint with the national Episcopal Church accusing Bruno of misconduct. A hearing was held in March before a panel of members from the national church. A decision is still pending.

However, in April, Bruno entered into a confidential agreement with another local developer to sell the Via Lido property. He was ordered by the hearing panel and the acting bishop of the national Episcopal Church to stop that sale until the panel reaches a decision regarding his misconduct charges.

The panel also rejected Bruno's appeal asking to complete the sale, and an attorney for the national church recommended defrocking Bruno based on his attempt to sell the church without informing the hearing panel.

Bruno is scheduled to retire by the end of the year and the Rt. Rev. John Taylor is expected to take his place.


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