The Newton Community Preservation Committee decided it will support a church’s bid for nearly $1.5 million of public preservation grants that would fund repairs to a 19th-century bell tower advocates say is at risk of collapsing.
The City Council will need to approve the bid to fund the project, which the committee accepted 6-2 at an Oct. 13 meeting with one member abstaining. While the tower is private property of a religious organization — Grace Episcopal Church in Newton Corner — members said it provides historic and architectural value to the greater public.
Dan Brody, vice chair of the committee, said at the meeting the city’s Law Department told members if Newton were to allocate community preservation grants to the church project, a court could find the city violated the Anti-Aid Amendment to the Massachusetts constitution.
The Anti-Aid amendment prohibits the use of public money to support, maintain, or aid a religious organization that is not publicly owned. The state’s Supreme Judicial Court has said, however, that churches may receive funding under the Community Preservation Act in some cases — though not for projects that support their core religious activities.
The Community Preservation Act is a state measure allowing cities and towns to levy a surcharge of up to 3 percent to support historic preservation efforts, along with open space, affordable housing, and recreation projects. The state also provides partially matching funds.
Grace Church advocates have said their project would not violate the Anti-Aid Amendment because they do not use the tower for worship, and it does not bear any religious imagery.
Robert Maloney, a Community Preservation Committee member, said at the meeting they should decide which projects ought to receive public funding based on their knowledge of community preservation, not the law.
“I don’t think it’s up to us to decide whether or not this passes the legal muster,” he said.
Maloney added he agreed with the project’s advocates that the tower benefits not just members of the church but also anyone who passes through nearby Farlow Park.
“It’s an iconic building. It’s the type of building that gives a municipality its identity,” he said. “I think it’s exactly the kind of thing that we should be allocating money to try to preserve.”
Some Community Preservation Committee members said at the meeting they were concerned with the amount of money Grace Church was requesting and asked if the church had considered any additional sources of funding that could offset the city’s contribution.
The church said at a meeting for the proposal last month they could cover no more than half the estimated $2.9 million cost of repairing and restoring the tower with a fundraising campaign and grants from organizations such as the Massachusetts Historical Commission.
Leah Gassett, a member of Grace Church’s governing board, said at the meeting Tuesday the church has “done our best to exhaust external funding sources” but that a partnership with the city could help them leverage additional funding going forward. Without the city’s financial support to preserve it, advocates said, the tower likely would need to be torn down.
“We’re not going to take our foot off the gas in terms of seeking those funds,” Gassett said.
Ellen Ishkanian, a spokesperson for the city, said in an email the Community Preservation Committee recommended Newton give the church roughly $1.2 million — the majority of its proposal — of preservation funding the city already had set aside for historic projects.
If the city council approves, the remaining balance will be made up with funds allocated for historic preservation in the next fiscal year, she said.
Richard Kronish, a member of the Community Preservation Committee and chairman of the Newton Housing Authority, said at the meeting he was uncomfortable supporting the church’s proposal given the Law Department’s findings and would vote against it.
“This is the opinion that we’ve gotten. I don’t have the capacity to challenge it, to doubt it,” Kronish said. “I can’t see past it.”
Brody, the vice chair, said Grace Church is making a big ask, but the Community Preservation Committee has for years been “well below” its target of spending about 20 percent of its budget on historic preservation projects. It was reassuring, he added, to learn many other municipalities have given Community Preservation Act funds to religious organizations.
“There’s certainly no guarantee that this one won’t get challenged, but I don’t think we should be fearful of that,” Brody said at the meeting Tuesday. “If we think it’s a good project, which I do, I think we should go ahead with it.”
Ishkanian said in an email the city expects Grace’s proposal will be on the docket at the first city council meeting in November. It will be sent to the Finance and either the Land Use or Zoning and Planning committees, she said, before going back to the full council for a final vote.
Shaun Robinson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.