As the East End’s Methodist churches continue to consolidate as historic church buildings are sold off, the community in Orient is rallying behind their historic 1836 church building at the corner of Village Lane and Orchard Street.
The Oysterponds Historical Society and the Orient Associaton are helping lead a community initiative to preserve the building, which the New York Conference of the United Methodist Church, which oversees local churches, hopes to sell for about $900,000.
The closing of the Orient church is part of a pattern of consolidation among Methodist churches on the North Fork.
The Southold United Methodist Church was sold two years ago and is now an opera house, Greenport’s United Methodist Church has been sold to a private owner and the North Fork United Methodist Church in Cutchogue, where many members of the other congregations now meet, is also for sale, as the congregation prepares to build a new sanctuary just east of Horton Lane on Route 48 in Southold.
The Orient congregation voted to join the North Fork United Methodist Church last spring.
A site plan for the new church is currently before the Southold Town Planning Board.
OHS Vice President Ed Caufield and Orient Association President Bob Hanlon asked the Southold Town Board for help preserving the property at the board’s April 11 work session, during the final days of a survey of the Orient community in which nearly 90 percent of respondents said they’d like to see the building preserved, 62 percent said they’d support the project financially and 50 percent said they’d help take care of the property.
By the time the survey closed a few days later, 90.2 percent of respondents said they were in favor of the Oysterponds Historical Society working to preserve the building, and 65.4 percent said they’d give financial support to the project.
“We have never seen that type of a ‘gel’ in the community,” said Mr. Caufield, who added that 300 people responded to the survey — nearly half the population of the hamlet.
But even with that support, they said, this project is still a heavy lift.
“If every person who participated in the survey donated $1,000, we’re not going to come close, which is an unrealistic expectation,” Mr. Hanlon told the town board. “If every man woman and child in Orient donated $1,000, we couldn’t do it.”
They said they’ve been talking to representatives of foundations, The Peconic Land Trust and County Legislator Al Krupski about finding funding to buy the church.
Mr. Caufield said Mr. Krupski was open to the idea of helping with the preservation, if Southold Town also offered to help.
But Town Supervisor Scott Russell was skeptical, in particular, of the prospect of using Community Preservation Fund money for the project.
While historic preservation is an allowed use of the town’s CPF fund, which is a common practice in towns on the South Fork, Southold has long prioritized the purchase of agricultural land and open space through the program, and the town’s list of properties it is considering acquiring reflects that priority.
“I’m a very hard sell on this,” said Mr. Russell. “We have a hierarchy of what’s our top priority for preservation. I don’t think the building should dictate the plan. The plan should dictate the building. There are limits of the CPF fund. Its original goal was for land preservation. Now we have demands on it for septic systems. How thin can you stretch the CPF revenue, which isn’t that great to begin with?”
Mr. Russell added that he believes enthusiasm for preserving the church might wane once the building is purchased and the risk of it falling into private hands is gone.
Board members were also skeptical of the proposal, pointing out the recent difficulties faced by the New Suffolk Waterfront Fund, which for years had a great deal of community support for preserving the tiny hamlet’s waterfront district, but lost much support once they picked a redevelopment plan that many in the community disagreed about. That project was not financed by the town.
“They took years to find a solution. The group fought a lot and it’s a lot smaller now,” said Councilwoman Jill Doherty.
Mr. Caufield said he isn’t looking for the town to purchase the property, but to perhaps help with maintenance costs. He added that Poquatuck Hall, just down the street from the church, is a community resource cared for by the people of Orient through the non-profit Oysterponds Community Activities.
“We don’t want to create something that’s a burden on the town or the county,” he said. “We would like to try to find a way to obtain the property, put it in good stewards’ hands, as a building that could be used for appropriate functions within the community. Our goal is to try to figure out some kind of coalition.”
The building’s façade is protected by the town’s Historic Preservation Commission, but other features of the property, like its historically significant organ, which was restored in 2002, and its rounded semi-circle pews, are not protected.
“It’s not an ornately religious building. It has two really good stained glass windows,” said Mr. Hanlon. “I think the setting would suit certain kinds of events, like small performances. I think it could work in concert with Poquatuck Hall for some events, and there could be small art displays, in keeping with the interior.”
Councilman Jim Dinizio asked how the group was defining community, and if people who lived outside Orient would be welcome.
“Plenty of visitors come from other places,” said Mr. Hanlon, who pointed out that half the members of the Orient Yacht Club don’t live in Orient. “Poquatuck Hall has all kinds of events hosted by different people. If we host events there, it also draws people from all over.”
In the end, the Orient representatives agreed to put together a community meeting, with representatives from the town, to talk about the future of the church.