Grange and church at odds in Arlington

ARLINGTON -- The Battenkill Grange and the Chapel on the Green, a small Methodist church, have long shared a building a short distance from a landmark covered bridge and the studio where Norman Rockwell created many of his iconic images of life in small town America. At the moment, however, the two organizations are divided over how the Grange will compensate the church for the use of the annex they have called home for nearly seven decades.

Failure to resolve the impasse could lead to the Grange leaving the annex for a new location to hold their monthly meetings and Sunday pancake breakfasts by the end of November, said Lillian Wood, the Grange's Master.

"We're going to try and get together and figure something out and if we don't we're pulling out," she said.

At issue is a new fee schedule the Church is seeking to put in place to pay for heating and electricity expenses. Up to now, the Grange has paid those bills directly -- as well as costs for plowing snow and mowing grass around the property, which is owned by the Grange except for the church building, the annex itself and the land the church sits on.

Last June, church officials indicated to the Grange that they would take over paying the heating and electric expenses but in exchange wanted to charge the Grange a monthly fee of $100 for the use of the annex for the Grange's meetings and a fee of $125 when the Grange hosted their monthly Sunday breakfasts. That plan has met with a chilly reception from Grange members, who felt it would place a financial strain on their organization and would also give control of the annex completely over to the church.

Church officials, on the other hand, maintain that arrangement would save the Grange money, possibly as much as $500 per year, said John Thompson, the chairman of the church's governing advisory council.

"We haven't told them to move out, and we don't want them to leave," he said. "I've expressed that to them several times. We just want the church to have control over who uses the building."

Control of the building is as much as an issue as the financial question of paying a fee instead of electric and heating bills, he added.

"When we have a church function, we have to check with the Grange to see if it's clear, and they don't give us a concise answer," he said. "They use the building, and lease it out at their own will, (and) keep all the money for themselves ... which is wrong."

If the Grange goes along with the church's plan to adopt a fee schedule for the use of the annex, they fear they will indeed lose some control over how and when they can use the facility, Wood said.

"They'll be able to tell us when we can have the hall and when we can't," she said. "We've been here 65 years and we haven't done anything wrong." The controversy began last June with when the church proposed the fees. The church wanted the fee schedule to begin in September, but the Grange has declined to pay anything towards that so far, said June Sherwin, one of the Grange members. They have continued to pay the bills as they have in the past, she added.

"If we play these fees, we will barely make ends meet," Sherwin said.

In a letter sent to church officials on Sept. 20, the Grange members maintained that their organization had installed the electricity for the church and the annex.

"This explains the current ongoing relationship, which required no contract, for it enabled both organizations to succeed in their mutual goals of uplifting humanity and providing charity ... This alliance should be continued," the letter stated.

Rev. Keith Mann, the pastor of the small church, which conducts services once a month, said the fee schedule was supposed to start in October, and discussions are still being held with the Grange to resolve the issues.

Things simply got to a point where it was necessary for the church to advance a fee structure, which he said would have saved the Grange money, possibly as much as $2,000 a year.

"The problem was the Grange was renting the hall out and keeping the money and not turning any of the money over to us and they were supposed to," he said. "This went back many years."

The area around the church, with its famous covered bridge straddling the Batten Kill, is a much photographed spot. The pavilion behind the church, which is on the property owned by the Grange, was made famous by Norman Rockwell's habit of showing up and helping sell tickets and ham sandwiches for the square dances that used to be held there. His former studio is a short distance away.

Another meeting between Grange and church officials is planned for later this month to see if a compromise can be worked out, Wood said.

"We decided, one more time, we're going to try," she said.


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