Lawsuit attempts to halt sale of St. James church

St. James the Great Episcopal Church parishioners are asking a judge to stop the sale of their beloved Newport Beach sanctuary to a developer planning to build town houses on the site.

Bishop J. Jon Bruno of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles announced to the St. James congregation in May that the church, at 3209 Via Lido, and two nearby parking lots, were being sold for about $15 million to Legacy Partners Residential, which plans to build about 22 high-end townhomes.

Parishioners, who said the sale came as a surprise, gathered at a community meeting hosted by Mayor Pro Tem Diane Dixon this month to voice their opposition.

The congregation filed the lawsuit in Orange County Superior Court on Monday in an effort to slow and eventually stop the sale, which is expected to be finalized on Friday, according to court documents.

A spokesman for the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles could not be reached for comment.

The lawsuit alleges that the church’s planned sale is in violation of the original deed. The property is to be used exclusively for church purposes and “no building other than a church and appurtenances may be erected, placed or maintained thereon,” according to the legal complaint.

Ownership rights to the property transferred from the Griffith Co. to the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles in 1945. The Griffith Co. developed much of Lido Isle, beginning in the 1920s.

“It has been a church on that site for the past 70 years,” said parishioner Bill Kroener. “People have been baptized, confirmed, married and buried in the church, and it’s gone in six days in the absence of this action.”

An Orange County Superior Court judge is expected to issue a ruling Wednesday morning on the congregation’s request for a temporary restraining order blocking the sale of the property.

If lawyers representing the congregation are successful, the court will consider a permanent injunction, which would stop the sale in the coming weeks.

If the court rules in favor of the diocese, Sunday would be the final service at St. James. The diocese plans to remove the pews, all stained glass windows and the cremated human remains stored in the church immediately following the service.

It is not clear how the property would be used while the developer goes through the process of asking the city to rezone the land for residential use.

Since the St. James property is zoned for private institutions, meaning a private school or church, the City Council would have to approve a general plan amendment and zoning change before homes could be built.

The entire process could take more than two years, city officials have said.

This isn’t the first time the diocese has undergone a legal battle over St. James church.

A group of parishioners split from the Episcopal Church in 2004 after disagreements surrounding the ordaining of a gay bishop and other issues that led St. James to affiliate with the Anglican Church.

The move launched a years-long fight over the Newport Beach property between the Anglican parish and the Episcopal diocese. The church was an Anglican parish from 2004 to 2013, when an Orange County Superior Court judge granted the property ownership rights to the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles.