The Presbyterians

And Other Borough Issues

Soon after the funding for the Revenue Anticipation Bonds was approved in July of 1973 by the General Assembly of the United Presbyterian Church, another issue emerged involving the Presbyterians and the North Slope Borough. This issue also involved land, only this time the land belonged to the Presbyterians.

Charles White, pastor of the Utkeagvik Presbyterian Church, wrote Eben Hopson, borough mayor, in October of 1973, informing him that the church session had spent several hours in serious discussion regarding the borough’s proposal to purchase the church’s Christian Education Building and the land upon which it sat.

The church session preferred not to sell the building nor the land, White informed the mayor, but would rather open talks regarding a long term lease of the property. The Borough needed the property as a location for its new North Slope Borough Administration Building.

Chairperson of the special committee appointed to discuss the lease proposal was Elder Edward Hopson, brother of Mayor Eben.

The long term lease proposal received support over at the borough and the Director of Administration and Finance, Lloyd Ahvakana, wrote White back later that month informing him of this. Ahvakana was the brother of Presbyterian minister Nelson Ahvakana.

Discussions began among attorneys and national church officers in an effort to make the lease happen. 

In January of 1974, Gordon Corbett, associate synod executive, wrote Charles Shangler of the Office of Capital Resources, in total support of the lease proposal, quoting Mayor Hopson’s observation that “government services be located as centrally as possible within the village so that people, particularly older people, can walk to the building to secure the services which they need. The vacant land next to the Church is ideally suited for this purpose and I strongly support the idea of locating the office building there.” 

The congregation of the Utkeagvik Presbyterian Church also voted to support the proposal in February 1974. Title insurance, appraisals, and necessary documents for the lease were discussed. Eben Hopson wrote back the next day, February 26, indicating that the borough would bear the costs of the appraisal. 

In April of 1974, the national church’s mission program services unit, denied the request of both the local church and the Synod of Alaska-Northwest -- based on disadvantages it perceived the local church would experience, i.e. the portion desired would take away the best road frontage of the church; a lease of church property for income changes the tax exempt status of the church property and leads to various complications; the borough office would bring additional pedestrian and vehicle traffic into the area and increase the hazards of liability; the office building, at least two floors above ground, could detract from the prominence of the church structure now or in the future.

Discussions continued in an effort to bring the national church on board. Resolution was not in sight. 

In July of 1974, Eben Hopson wrote Pastor White informing him that the borough attorneys decided that it was just easier to “exercise the municipal right of condemnation and the declaration of taking” in order the acquire the needed property. 

Hopson noted that “the filing of condemnation proceedings has been agreed to by church executives in Anchorage and Seattle and the action is a friendly action according to legal terms.” 

In his letter, Hopson further indicated that once the borough owned the property it would deed it back to the Utkeagvik Presbyterian Church and enter into the lease arrangement with the church that had been proposed earlier in the year.

The borough deposited $34,200 with the court representing the assessed valuation of the property. 

The action was filed in the Superior Court for the State of Alaska and the property was awarded to the borough October 30, 1974.

This was not the end of the matter. 

In February of 1975, Charles K. Cranston, attorney for the borough, wrote the clerk of the Utkeagvik Presbyterian Church session, explaining why the monies for the condemnation of the property had not been transferred to the local church. 

"Let me assure you," Cranston wrote, "that all of the officials of the church involved both within the Synod and locally in Barrow had sought a solution whereby the funds from the condemnation suit would ultimately become the funds of the local session. However, the national organization was unable or unwilling to decide to take the action necessary to do this...”

Consequently, the Court transmitted approximately $33,000 to the Presbyterian Board of National Missions, the entity which officially owned the property. 

The issue was still very much alive the following month, when Elder Nelson Ahvakana requested that the Yukon Presbytery Council “investigate the Barrow property matter and in consultation with the Barrow session confer with the General Assembly agency for the purpose of trying to restore the land to the church and to take some provision for lease income to come to the church.”

A special committee of investigation was appointed to go to Barrow in April. The Rev. Tom Teply, pastor at First Presbyterian Church, Anchorage, was chair of the committee and provided a written report upon his return.

The issue at this time was not so much the condemnation of the land by the borough -- but who was to receive the monies derived from the proceedings and whether or not previous promises to deed the land back to the local church could be legally honored. 

Construction of the new borough building was already underway in that holes were being bored for the footings. The administration building would include a parking area between that building and the Christian education building which the church would be permitted to use on Sundays and evenings when the Borough offices would be closed. The appraised value of the property had been rounded to an even $1,00 per square foot for the 33,600 square feet in question. 

The local church’s former pastor, the Rev. Charles R. White had “repeatedly assured” the congregation that the church could retain any money realized from either a lease or sale of the land to the borough. However, the property actually belonged to the Program Agency of the national church. The agency could have allowed the money to be retained locally, but that was “not the policy of the Agency.” 

A meeting with Borough Mayor Eben Hopson confirmed all the pertinent details. Hoped admitted that he had previously written a letter to the session of the church promising that the Borough, after the condemnation proceedings were ended, would grant the land back to the church, and then pay the church for leasing the property. He explained that he later learned that this would be “entirely illegal” so it could not be done. 

The committee met with spoke with several borough officials, including the mayor, the Director of Administration and Finance Lloyd Ahvakana, and Loretta Kenton of the borough health department. All three were elders in the Presbyterian church. 

The current church session was not happy. The clerk of session expressed the feeling that the old Board of National Missions, now the Program Agency, simply was holding title to the property for the church and that the church really owned the property and should receive any payment for the land. 

The committee then attempted to visit with Elder Nelson Ahvakana who had initiated the request for the special committee. Ahvakana was unavailable since he was out on the ice helping to search for the body of his nephew, Steven Itta, who had been lost the day before while seal hunting.

The report of Reverend Teply outlines the genesis for many of the financial and leasing misunderstandings involved in the situation. The local church had benefited greatly over the years from mission aid, including the construction of the Christian Education building in the first place, the two manses, valued at $250,000 or more plus the $12,400 annual contribution from Synod toward the pastor’s salary, and the approximate $10,000 annual insurance payments for the church property.

 

“At the end of the (session) meeting (that night), there seemed to be a better understanding on the part of all present of what the situation actually was, and what could and could not be done to change the situation,” Teply reported. Gordon Corbett, associate synod executive, and Teply were to meet later in the month with representatives of the Program Agency who were coming to Alaska.


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