Grover Beach Police Chief takes sides in church ownership dispute

May 13, 2019

Grover Beach Police officers and San Luis Obispo County Sheriff deputies respond to pastor John Fleming at Bethel Baptist Church on May 11.

By KAREN VELIE

Grover Beach Police Chief John Peters authorized officers to arrest members and the pastor of the Bethel Baptist Church if they attempted to enter the church property. It was the latest development in a battle over ownership of the church and property worth an estimated $2.9 million. [Cal Coast Times]

Peters told officers on Friday that the Christian & Missionary Alliance (C&MA) was the legitimate owner of the 67-year-old church. The C&MA is trying to sell the property to the 5 Cities Homeless Coalition whose board membership includes Grover Beach Mayor Jeff Lee.

But records from the SLO County Assessor’s Office show the property is owned by the Bethel Baptist Church. And records from the SLO County Clerk-Recorder’s Office and a finding from a title company also say that Bethel Baptist Church is the owner of the property.

Members of the Bethel Baptist Church have been battling the C&MA over ownership of the property on Newport Avenue since early 2019 when they were told that the church was being shuttered and sold because membership had fallen.

As the fight continued, Mayor Lee pushed for the sale of the property to the 5 Cities Homeless Coalition. Lee is a strong proponent of transforming the building from a church to the nonprofit he represents.

The C&MA changed the locks on church doors and took down Hillside Church signs on Sunday, May 5, after a meeting between C&MA representatives and more than 100 parishioners ended with the C&MA telling the parishioners they no longer had a church.

Pastor and president of the Baptist Bethel Church board John Fleming then announced plans to conduct services in the parking lot on Sunday, May 12.

On Friday, Chief Peters said that the C&MA was the legitimate owner of property and that officers were to arrest members of the parish who refused to leave the property. A few hours later, Valerie Wilson, a representative of the CM&A, and several others removed property and a plastic tub filled with documents from the church, according to Fleming.

Fleming asked several officers to stop the pilfering, and provided county records showing Bethel Baptist Church as the owner of the property. Officers said they had to go by the ownership documents that Chief Peters concluded showed the C&MA was the property owner.

“We have to go by the paperwork we have at this time that we can recognize, that he can recognize,” officer Celis Rabena said. “If there is any trespassing on the property and Valerie (Wilson) chose to press charges, we have to take action.”

But on Sunday, the C&MA changed its request to have the pastor and parishioners arrested, and permitted them to have a service in the back parking lot behind the church while officers stood by.

Bethel Baptist Church sermon held behind the church

History of ownership:

In 1962, Byron and Hazel Ewing deeded the more-than-3-acre lot they owned at 1935 Newport Avenue to the Bethel Baptist Church.

About 10 years ago, Ron Kennedy became an assistant pastor of the church. A few years later, Kennedy moved into the position of primary pastor. He brought Valerie Wilson in to handle the very limited accounting required at the small congregation, parishioners said.

On March, 22, 2016, Kennedy changed the name from the Hillside Church of Grover Beach to the Hillside Church of Grover Beach of the Christian and Missionary Alliance, according to a state filing. At the time, congregants thought the name was changed in order to bring in more members. Fleming said.

But despite the name change, the Internal Revenue Service still knew the organization as Bethel Baptist Church. The church continued to use the original Hillside Church tax identification number rather than the C&MA’s tax identification number. And a filing to the state of California regarding donations received in 2017, listed the original church California tax ID number and not CM&A’s tax identification number.

About a year and a half ago, the church began allowing 5 Cities Homeless to utilize church property for a warming center for the homeless.

Last year, officials from the 5 Cities Homeless Coalition asked Kennedy if he would consider selling the property to them.

On July, 10, 2018, Kennedy listed himself as chief executive officer and Valerie Wilson as chief financial officer in a statement of information filed with the Secretary of State’s Office.

On Oct. 17, 2018, Kennedy filed for a deed of trust transferring the property from Bethel Baptist Church to Hillside Church of Grover Beach of the Christian and Missionary Alliance. For an address, Kennedy put “in care of Valerie Wilson” at her home in Arroyo Grande. Shortly afterwards, Kennedy informed the 5 Cities Homeless Coalition he would sell the property to them.

On Jan. 11, 2019, C&MA and the 5 Cities Homeless coalition entered into a purchase agreement, on a property valued at $2.9 million, with Wilson listed as the seller’s agent. However, the sale has not concluded because of issues with a clouded title.

On May 6, Fleming filed a grant deed on the church property listing him as the president of the Baptist Bethel Church board.

On May 10, Kevin Irot, the vice president of the San Luis Obispo First American Title office, found that Bethel Baptist Church is the owner of the property, according to an email from Irot that included the SLO County Clerk/ Recorders Office official record.

Also on May 10, the SLO County Assessor’s Office confirmed that the Newport Avenue property is owned by Bethel Baptist Church in care of John Fleming.

“Attached are the screen shots from the County assessors office, proving yet again that the property is in Bethel Baptist Church of Grover Beach, wrote Hayley Smith, a San Luis Obispo County Assessor’s Office property transfer technician.

On Friday afternoon, Fleming provided the Grover Beach Police Department with multiple county records denoting Bethel Baptist Church as the owner of the Newport Avenue property. Even so, the police department continued to recognize the CM&A as the legal owner of the church.

Both the C&MA and the Bethel Baptist Church congregation continue to claim to own the property. It is likely a court will make the final determination.


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Jorge Estrada

If THEY pay the taxes and possess it long enough, THEY own it. He said or she said will not trump the county records because the records will not change on bogus documents. Until the alleged takers have their day in court, the police need to stay out of this civil matter.


kayaknut

Generally that is what police do, “stay out of civil maters”, but when your Mayor tells you to jump I guess Chief Peters asked “how high”. Mayor Lee feels having is own personal security force to support his position regardless of what is legal will triumph.


Gramelin

Being the real estate agent in this deal, MS Valerie stands to make a nice commission. Lets see average 5-7% of 2.9M? that’s $205k! GREED has overcome them.

Such a heartbreaking story, immoral and Shameful!

I’m sure the Erwing’s would be devastated to know what they are doing.


ActaNonVerba

This is just horrible! Follow the $$$!


LameCommenter

Please post a paypal or address where we can send donations for the legal fund to defend the congregational/Bethel ownership of that church. Such an action as this takeover and sale, by a self-dealing agent and other persons of possibly challenged character, should not stand.


One can HOPE that the Ewing 1962 grantors included a standard reversionary clause so if it ever ceased operation as a house of worship it would automatically revert to grantors or their heirs and assigns.


And as usual, a politician/mayor wants to extinguish a house of worship. If this was the Nasreen Mosque being shuttered, of course the politicians would take the other view.


This horrible tale reminds one of a real estate salesperson joke: “If you are considering buying one of two houses for your family and cannot decide, they are equal houses but ONE has a child molester as a neighbor, an honest-to-fact, and on-the-list actual convicted child molester living nextdoor, and the OTHER home you’re considering has a real estate professional as the next-door neighbor, GO WITH THE MOLESTER-adjacent house…….you will get a better grade of neighbor.”


Stunned

So one Sgt. shows up to protect Wilson as she begins the task of removing files (i.e. creating new records and shredding others) yet they send 2 Grover cops and 2 more from the Sheriff to make sure those singing Amazing Grace don’t get too out of hand?


If it’s really CMA’s building why would anyone want records leaving there? Aren’t church’s typically pretty transparent with things like MONEY and meeting minutes? Watch how new minutes are suddenly available.


MysticOne

If the police chief says fake deeds are valid to evict someone then someone needs to fill out deeds for city hall and the police station and have them evict themselves.


PaulJones

Jeff Lee is in favor of the sale, so the chief of police takes sides with those on the mayor’s side. While it will probably take a judge to make a determination, the chief should not be siding with those the county assessor does nor recognize.


Myself

Ahhh, things come to light now, sounds like someone is setting themselves up for some skimming of the pot if this gets set up as a homeless refuge, as being part of the nonprofit.


Uncle Jack

I’m sure it makes sense but I need a giant marker board to figure out what I just read.


ratherbefishing

Basically, some people will make some serious money they neither honestly earned, deserve or have a right to, and at the expense of other honest people


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