Rally highlights history, beauty of church facing legal troubles
Stonington — More than 75 people attended a rally Sunday afternoon at the United Church of Stonington, where organizers highlighted the borough church's long history in the community and its ongoing contributions, while providing details of a protracted legal battle that threatens its future.
Costs are nearing $500,000 to defend a claim by David Crouzet, an abutting homeowner of the church parsonage at 48 Trumbull St., that water containing oil from an underground oil tank removed by the church in 2006 flowed into his basement at 50 Trumbull Ave. and contaminated the soil and water.
The church pastor, Lori Filban, resided in the parsonage until earlier this month but left after her position was reduced from full-time to part-time, according to church leaders.
The once-solvent church is struggling, and its leaders are appealing to the community for financial assistance and support.
"The church did everything in its ability to be a good neighbor," said Penny Cleare, head trustee. "From testing, expert analysis, cleanup work, to negotiations, the church did everything it could to avoid a trial, but nothing was enough to satisfy the neighbor."
Superior Court Judge Joseph Koletsky ruled in August 2018, after hearing evidence at a weeklong trial, that Crouzet failed to prove the allegation that the church caused the contamination. Crouzet appealed, and oral arguments are expected to take place later this year before the state Appellate Court.
The outside of the mid-19th-century church was festooned with yellow ribbons to symbolize hope Sunday, and yellow sunflowers brightened the altar.
"We as a congregation are feeling hopeful about the future, but we realize that hope without action is sadness. Let's put our hope in action beginning today," said Lisa DeFanti, a church member, in a welcoming statement.
The speakers presented information and tours of the church's historic clocktower, which they said was given to the church for use by the entire borough, its treasured pipe organ, and elaborate stained glass windows. Members spoke of its annual Fourth of July picnics on the front lawn, tag sales, hosting AA meetings and ongoing missionary work, both locally and globally.
The church choir performed, and the Rev. Dr. Harry Riggs, a Baptist minister, delivered a rousing sermon likening the church to David and the plaintiff to Goliath. The church is aligned with both the United Church of Christ and the American Baptist Church. Riggs urged each person attending to reach out to five more people who could influence the outcome.
"When a community rallies together, they are bigger than the sum of their parts," Riggs said.
The church almost settled the lawsuit in 2016 by paying $55,000 and having Crouzet sign a release indicating he would not bring further legal action, but Crouzet refused, according to church leaders.
Crouzet, a tennis coach, purchased 50 Trumbull Ave. in 2004 and resided there from 2005 to 2009 while working at Mystic Indoor Tennis, according to church members. He is currently living in Mill Valley, Calif., and working as director of tennis at the Belvedere Tennis Club in Tiburon, Calif., and renting out the home.
Crouzet did not return a phone message on Sunday.
Three of the lawyers who are defending the church were on hand to answer questions, and church leaders stressed that the attorneys have worked hard on their behalf at reduced cost.
While some members asked about possibly countersuing Crouzet to recover some of the costs, attorney Lenny Isaacs said the goal should be peace and closure.
"It's rare that paying more money to try and ease your pain will help you," said Isaacs.
The church paid $100,000 for tests, experts and remediation of the property before it had all the facts, according to Cleare. They spent another $100,000 on initial legal fees with a firm that has since been replaced and anticipate paying an additional $300,000 in legal fees that will cover the pending appeal.
According to Cleare, oil testing showed no oil present after the church removed the parsonage's underground tank in 2006. Crouzet claims oil floated in groundwater between the two properties and got into his basement. But years of testing showed no staining on the underside of the basement floor, even though some tests of the floor showed high levels of oil.
The judge found that Crouzet didn't prove that the oil rising from the basement floor came from the church property, and Cleare said the evidence pointed to a "rickety old oil tank" in the Crouzet basement as the source.
More has come to light since the trial, according to Cleare.
During a nine-day rain event in October 2005, Cleare said contaminated soil and water were observed in Crouzet's basement. The water was pumped into his back yard and tons of soil were removed. Crouzet had replaced his boiler, which a previous tenant said had no overflow indicator and overflowed during fillups, without permits and inspections, she said.
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