An attorney representing the Congregational Church of New Canaan is asking town officials to correct the municipal tax database by listing the church as owner of God’s Acre.
The question of ownership emerged in 2020, when officials from the church said they would block a town-backed plan to install a permanent stone terrace directly opposite Park Street from its front door.
Since then, led by First Selectman Kevin Moynihan, the municipal government has spent tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars in legal fees seeking to establish the town as the owner of the .65-acre parcel.
Now, according to attorney John F.X. Peloso, Jr. of Stamford-based Robinson + Cole, property records have surfaced that clearly show that God’s Acre is a church-owned property.
In March, Peloso and his team “consulted both the records of the Town Tax Assessor as well as those of the Tax Collector,” he wrote in an April 17 letter addressed to the New Canaan assessor.
“Our online search revealed that, presently, there is no listing in either the Assessor’s or the Tax Collector’s database under the above criteria that identifies the record owner of the Property,” Peloso wrote in the letter, which was cited in a legal bill approved May 16 by the Board of Selectmen and obtained by NewCanaanite.com through a Freedom of Information Act request.
Peloso adds that the chain of title points to two deeds, from January 26, 1773 (recorded in Norwalk Land Records) and December 29, 1903 (recorded in New Canaan Land Records).
“As you will see, the 1903 deed conveys the Property to the Church,” he wrote in the letter. “There are no deeds relating to the Property subsequent in time to the 1903 deed. Given the above, the Church requests that Your Office correct the existing database record to list the Church as the owner of record of the Property.”
It’s unclear whether the town will update its online database.
As of Sunday, the online tax record of God’s Acre continued to list the town as owner of the parcel—a designation that is itself a change made at Moynihan’s direction in the midst of the legal dispute. The tax assessor field card in the past had defined God’s Acre as a “cemetery”—historians have said that the town’s founders were interred there and the Congregational Church, upon which New Canaan was founded, claims it as such.
Yet that designation was changed in August-September 2020 to the “Town of New Canaan” at Moynihan’s direction, after he looped the town’s tax assessor in on an email string that included research concluding that the town owns God’s Acre. That research, conducted at the town’s request by title searcher and historian Andrew Melillo, asserts that the 1773 deed makes the town of New Canaan—not the Church—owner of God’s Acre.
“A lot of times people today read the word Parish and automatically presume it signifies the church as that is how we refer to the church or church neighborhoods today (more so in Boston, etc),” Melillo said in a 2019 email obtained by NewCanaanite.com through a public records request. “So when it comes to the issue of title, it is clear. The People of Canaan Parish, therefore the Town, not the Church.”
It isn’t clear whether Melillo included the subsequent 1903 deed in his research.
It also isn’t clear whether the town will continue to spend taxpayer money on its legal argument with the Congregational Church—more than $40,000 to date, including $1,856.50 in April. As of April 30, according to the legal bill approved last week by the selectmen, the town had already spent $357,786.89 in legal fees in the current fiscal year—meaning New Canaan is certain to exceed the prior year’s $300,000 legal budget yet again. Moynihan has continued to assert publicly that the legal budget overspending is due to affordable housing matters, though he has engaged the town attorney’s firm on specific issues such as the Congregational Church and FOI- and Planning & Zoning-related items that the town often loses. The town hasn’t issued an RFP for legal services since 2012.
Moynihan has called for the question of who owns God’s Acre to be resolved, saying that the town spends money maintaining the property and that the church has no grounds to claim ownership.
“But we have to resolve it. We can’t just let it hang out there. It’s a property in the center of town. Why is the town spending taxpayer dollars to maintain if we don’t have responsibility for it? I am trying to figure it out. If I knew what the Congregational Church’s position was, I would be able to have a fuller picture. But we researched from our side. All the papers I see say it was a community cemetery that the town of New Canaan is responsible for. I seriously do not understand why they think they have an ownership interest.”
God’s Acre is popularly known in New Canaan as the site of two important annual community events—Christmas Eve caroling and the Veterans Day ceremony. Purchased for three pounds in 1773 and deeded to “the Proprietors of the Parish of Canaan,” what is known today as God’s Acre was to be a cemetery for “public benefit for the whole community,” Mary Louise King writes in her 1981 history “Portrait of New Canaan.”
Why is new Canaan changing its history??? It seems we are taking historical landmarks and turning them into something else.. Why put a concrete patio in the space of the beautiful lawn leading to the cross on Gods Acre? The space is not an outside auditorium. It saddens me.