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St. James parishioners say goodbye, although deed dispute clouds church's sale

St. James parishioners say goodbye, although deed dispute clouds church's sale
The congregation at St. James the Great Episcopal Church in Newport Beach gathers Sunday for what was expected to be the last service at the church's current location at 3209 Via Lido. (Susan Hoffman)

The Rev. Canon Cindy Evans Voorhees asked parishioners gathered at St. James the Great Episcopal Church on Sunday morning what the walls of their longtime church might say if they could speak.

She asked whether the building, if given the capacity for human emotion, would weep over the impending sale of the 70-year-old house of worship in Newport Beach. Several members of the audience – which the church estimated at more than 200 – nodded, dabbing their eyes with tissues as Voorhees’ sermon continued.

"People ask why we're weeping for a building," Voorhees said. "It's not the building. It's the stories housed in this building that we hold so dearly in our hearts."

Parishioners lined the oak pews at St. James on Sunday for what was expected to be the final service in the building at 3209 Via Lido.

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Bishop J. Jon Bruno of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles announced in May that the church building and two nearby parking lots were being sold for about $15 million to Legacy Partners Residential, which plans to build 22 high-end townhomes on the site. The sale, which was expected to be finalized Friday, did not close, according to St. James staff.

Robert Williams, spokesman for the diocese, said the sale is still underway. "The due-diligence process on the sale is proceeding," he wrote in an email.

However, a lawsuit that the bishop filed Friday in Orange County Superior Court against the Griffith Co., the former property owner, could indicate problems with the sale, parishioners said.

Ownership rights to the property were transferred from the Griffith Co. to the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles in 1945 with the restriction that the site remain a church. The Griffith Co. developed much of Lido Isle, beginning in the 1920s.

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Lawyers for the diocese wrote in court documents that the church in 1985 negotiated removal of the use restriction from the deed, granting the diocese the right to sell the property for other purposes.

However, Griffith Co. lawyers wrote in a letter to the diocese on June 10 that the company never removed the use restriction.

"Griffith's assertions that the use restriction has not been released and remains enforceable has created a cloud on the bishop's title to the property and has jeopardized and interfered with the bishop's sale on the property," lawyers for the bishop wrote in court filings.

The bishop is asking the court to confirm his right to sell the property and for the court to levy monetary damages against the Griffith Co., according to court papers.

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Though the church's sale has not been finalized, the locks on St. James were changed Monday afternoon, staff said.

Joyce O'Neal and her husband, Hal, have been attending Sunday services at the church since she moved to Newport Beach from San Diego years ago. She said the congregation welcomed them from their first weekend there.

"When you sit down, you immediately know you're among friends," she said. "This is a very sad day."

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