Recent Developments in Connecticut Regarding Church Property

A Connecticut court ruled that a church could construct a parsonage in a subdivision despite a “restrictive covenant” prohibiting any use other than a “strictly private residence.”

Church Law and Tax1998-03-01

Church Property

Key point. Parsonages ordinarily are a permitted use in residential neighborhoods. However, this may not be true if a restrictive covenant exists limiting the use of the property to residential purposes and there is evidence that the parsonage is or will be used for church business and activities.

A Connecticut court ruled that a church could construct a parsonage in a subdivision despite a “restrictive covenant” prohibiting any use other than a “strictly private residence.” A group of homeowners asked a court to issue an order barring a church from constructing a parsonage in their subdivision. The homeowners asserted that their deeds, and the other deeds to lots in their subdivision, contain a restrictive covenant which states that the lots may not be used for “any business purpose whatsoever, or for any other purpose, other than a strictly private residence.” They further insisted that the construction of a parsonage breaches the restrictive covenant because church business will be conducted in the residence, violating the requirement that any residence be “strictly private.” In particular, they pointed out that the size and design of the parsonage made it usable as a place for church members to comfortably gather, and that its close proximity to the church would make it easily accessible to members. The homeowners also noted that a parsonage is exempt from property tax under state law if occupied by a minister. They reasoned that the property is exempt from property tax since it is used for “religious purposes,” and this demonstrated that the planned use would not be “residential” and therefore the restriction would be violated. A trial court refused to issue an order barring the church from constructing the parsonage, and the homeowners appealed. A state appeals court ruled that the parsonage may violate the restrictive covenant, and it sent the case back to the trial court for further proceedings. It noted that the church failed to offer any evidence to support its claim that the parsonage would be used solely for residential purposes. On the other hand, the homeowners did produce evidence to support their claim that the parsonage would not be used solely for residential purposes. One document, created by the church and entitled “A Fact Sheet for the Future,” discussed the church’s need to provide a residence for the pastor. However, this document indicated that the church may use the residence for “smaller church functions.” Another document cited by the homeowners was a pamphlet prepared by the church stating that the parsonage “will accommodate various social events to which the [pastor] or spouse invite parishioners, i.e. gatherings in the living room, seated and buffet dinners, teas, parties and cook outs.”

Application. This case is important for two reasons. First, it illustrates that parsonages may violate restrictive covenants in some subdivisions if they are used for more than purely residential purposes. Second, it demonstrates the importance of being aware of such covenants before acquiring land for the construction of a parsonage, or acquiring an existing residence for use as a parsonage. And third, it shows how church—generated documents can be used to demonstrate that a parsonage will be used for more than purely residential purposes. Asjes v. Parish of Christ Church, 1997 WL 139450 (Conn. App. 1997). [ Property of Corporations]

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