Aquinnah moves to forgive tax lien on Gay Head church

A change in state law would allow voters to void a $13,772 tax bill on the parsonage for the oldest church on Martha’s Vineyard.

Formed in 1693 to serve members of the Wampanoag Tribe, the Gay Head Community Baptist Church is recognized as the nation’s oldest continuous Native American church congregation. — Derrill Bazzy

The hour of deliverance from tax bondage may be at hand for the apparently leaderless Gay Head Community Baptist Church and its financially beleaguered parsonage.

A change in state tax law slated to take effect Nov. 7 will clear the way for the town of Aquinnah to forgive a tax title lien of $13,772, representing nine years of back taxes and penalties, on the now vacant parsonage. The goal is to return the parsonage, which is badly in need of repairs, to the town’s inventory of affordable housing.

Formed in 1693 to serve members of the Wampanoag Tribe, the Gay Head Community Baptist Church is recognized as the nation’s oldest continuous Native American church congregation. While church property is tax-exempt, buildings not used to house clergy and church-related residents are not exempt.

For years, the parsonage was rented out as affordable housing. In 2007, the town put the parsonage on the tax rolls, complying with state law related to the tax-exempt status of church property. The tax bills were never paid.

Last week, selectman Jim Newman told the Times, “The town is not pursuing the tax bill. We want to forgive it, but I don’t know who we would contact, who the church leader is. It would be helpful to have a go-to person at the church, but no one has stepped forward to talk to us.”

According to new provisions to Massachusetts General Law Chapter 58, section 8c, a town may issue tax abatements by amending its bylaws, and towns will no longer require approval from the state Department of Revenue for tax forgiveness.

In a letter dated Sept. 19 to the Aquinnah board of selectmen, town counsel Michael Goldsmith of the Edgartown firm of Reynolds, Rappaport, Kaplan & Hackney, said the town could forgive the parsonage’s tax lien by preparing a town meeting warrant article for Aquinnah “to adopt the provision of the (new) statute and, further, to adopt a bylaw to effectuate its provisions.”

Aquinnah town administrator Adam Wilson said last week the town will move to prepare a warrant-article bylaw change for a special town meeting, planned for November, that would allow the town to forgive the tax and remove the lien.

If voters approve a bylaw change, the parsonage back taxes could be forgiven, the tax lien removed, and the parsonage would become eligible for readily available town and state money for badly needed repairs and upgrades to its well and septic system that have left it uninhabitable.

The parsonage has been vacant for about three years since the board of health determined that its well and septic system were too close to each other to comply with town regulations. Prior to that, the parsonage had been regularly used for affordable housing. Asked how long, former tenant Wendy Swolinsky said, “Since forever. There were renters in there before me.” Ms. Swolinzky, who now has a home in Aquinnah, said she lived at the parsonage for five years, beginning in 2000 or 2001.

Because of the outstanding tax title lien, the parsonage has been unable to qualify for about $20,000 in available conservation commission and Community Preservation Act funds that were set aside for it several years ago, according to Derrill Bazzy, chairman of the Aquinnah conservation commission.

According to several town officials, the church has not communicated with them about its tax situation since the town revoked the parsonage’ s tax-exempt status in 2007.

The church itself has not been taxed and has not had a pastor in residence for about two decades. In recent years, the Rev. Roger Spinney and subsequently, the Rev. Ellen Tatreau, both of the Community Baptist Church in Vineyard Haven, have conducted Sunday services in the Aquinnah church for about 15 regular congregants. The two churches are affiliated.

The parsonage’s outstanding tax lien came to light in mid-summer after Aquinnah selectman Juli Vanderhoop launched a campaign to raise more than $13,000 to repair the church and parsonage. In order to avoid being personally taxed on contributions, Ms. Vanderhoop was advised to use the state-issued tax-exempt status identification number, which was no longer available due to the revocation letter issued in 2007. Ms. Vanderhoop subsequently moved her fundraising effort to her Facebook page, which has attracted $1,000 in donations over the past two months.

In a conversation with The Times this week, Ms. Vanderhoop said she was thankful the town was able to find a solution.

“Being able to resolve the tax issue in order to qualify for funds to repair the church and parsonage and return the parsonage for use as affordable housing is important for our town in this current housing crisis,” Ms. Vanderhoop said. “It’s also important for the Wampanoag people. The founding of this congregation marked the beginning of historic change for my people. I’ve always believed the church should be on every tour of Aquinnah.”