STONINGTON — The United Church of Stonington, a borough bastion since 1834, is fighting for its life.

Nearly bankrupted by fighting a lawsuit that it won, the church that welcomes everyone and anyone says it needs help, “hope and ideas.” It may have won its initial battle in court, but an appeal is looming that could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“We haven’t given up,” church trustee Penny Cleare said. “We will keep the doors open and protect this historic landmark,” she said, and asked for the community’s input, saying the church has “put hope into action and asks for ideas on how we can recreate our church into something even better for our community.”

A GoFundMe campaign created more than three months ago has less than $3,000 pledged and just two dozen donors.

The church's lawyer, Lenny Isaacs, said the dispute involves neighboring residential properties at 48 and 50 Trumbull Ave. The  defendants, First Baptist Church of Stonington and Second Congregational Church of Stonington, own the property at 48 Trumbull Ave. and use it as a parsonage. The house next door, which was built in 1895, has been owned by David Crouzet since 2004.

At the time, Crouzet was 25 and teaching tennis in Mystic. He paid $195,000 for 50 Trumbull Ave; it's now appraised at $243,300, according to its town property card. Now living in Mill Valley, Calif., the French-born Crouzet moved in 2009 to take a job as the tennis director for the Belvedere Tennis Club in Tiburon, Calif., north of San Francisco on  San Francisco Bay.

Crouzet sued the church in 2016, alleging that its removal of an oil tank in 2006 contaminated water and soil and damaged his house when oil flowed into his basement. The Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection got involved, and there were depositions, hearings, exchanges of documents, inspections, and an excavation and tests that cost the church $100,000 — an amount that is about equal to its legal expenses so far. 

Crouzet, on the other hand, said that because of contamination, he has been “unable to rent out or sell my house and it is a major financial burden for me to keep paying the mortgage and insurances. The church should buy my house from me at the current market value and reimburse me for all the money I have lost by paying experts, lawyers, loss of rent, etc.”

He also claims that he tried to settle the dispute amicably. "After many years of trying to find a settlement to avoid a trial, nothing would work so I had to attack them in court," he said, adding that the church could have settled, could have “even bought my house,” but chose “to spend a lot more money to defend the case.”

Church trustees and their attorneys said they did, indeed, try to reach a settlement. In a statement, the church laid out its efforts to hire experts, test and remove soil as evidence that it had done "everything it could to avoid a trial, but nothing was enough to satisfy” Crouzet.

The dispute finally went to trial, and Superior Court Judge Joseph Koretsky, after hearing five days of evidence and arguments, ruled in August 2018 that Crouzet could not prove his case. The church's position is that “there was a great deal of evidence that oil at the neighbor’s property was from a different source than the church. Much of that evidence suggests that a rickety old oil tank in the neighbor’s basement was the source of the oil at the neighbor’s property.”

It’s strongly suggested in court records that Crouzet may have known that was the case all along, but he nevertheless appealed the ruling, and arguments are expected to be heard later this year by the Connecticut Appellate Court. He asserts that the tank from the church's parsonage was the source of the oil contamination in his basement, and that the church had never proved that a "secondary source" was responsible. The judge, he said, "completely missed the case.”

Crouzet said he thinks the “church should do what is right, which is to decontaminate my property or buy it from me and deal with it.”

Lawyers for the church and its trustees said that Crouzet's lawyer “indicated the church building itself is an asset that would be a source to satisfy a judgment if the neighbor prevailed at the trial.” And in an email that is part of the court record, Crouzet wrote that he wanted a “solution that would resolve my problem regardless of who created it.”

In its statement, the church said it had been “financially solvent with a solid endowment reserve of $300,000” before the dispute. It said it continues to receive donations and hold fundraising events and has had a “history of staying within budget, excluding the lawsuit, and has tightly adjusted budget based on current circumstances.”

The church said, it hopes to “keep the doors open, protect the historic landmark and borough-owned clock, and continue supporting our community. Our intent is to engage the broader community that taps the talent and knowledge for ideas that will utilize these buildings for so much more.”

At a rally in mid-August, nearly 100 people showed up to support the church, which stressed its importance to the community.

Cleare said the church on Main Street is “steeped in an incredible rich history of family and community.” Its clock tower, owned by the borough, is a beacon. Its hall is among the largest in the community for meetings and events from AA meetings to yard sales.

“We are more than a church. This is not about religion. The church is a landmark,” Cleare said. “We’re putting our hope into action and want to engage the broader community. It’s about getting people’s ideas. We’ll go on.”

The church, part of the Connecticut Conference of the United Church of Christ, said it welcomes everyone.

“Wherever you are on life’s journey ... if you are having problems, are down in the dumps, or don’t like organized religion, or are here because Granny is visiting and wanted to come to church, or for those who could use a prayer right now or just got lost in the borough and wound up here by mistake ... we welcome you.”

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