Woman seeks to reclaim Trinity Lutheran property

"The Christmas spirit at Trinity Lutheran Church was deflated this month when, among the cards and gifts delivered to the church, came notice of a lawsuit filed against it.“We’ve never been sued before,” lamented Pastor Jim Lindus, head of the large, active congregation in Freeland.The lawsuit is deeply rooted in the church’s 45-year-old history. It was filed by Linda Topp, a Sumner resident who is the granddaughter of Austin “Deke” Marshall, who donated eight-tenths of an acre at what is now the corner of Highway 525 and Woodard Road. Topp is named as representing her father, F. Gerald Marshall, who lives in Pierce County.While church founders saw the gift from Marshall as the answer to their prayers, it did not come without strings. And that’s what years later resulted in the lawsuit.When Marshall conveyed the deed to the land to the church in 1954, he stipulated in part: “The said land shall in no wise be used for other than church purposes and grantee shall not convey said land to any person to be used for any other purpose, and if it should attempt to do so, same shall immediately revert to grantor.”A church was built upon the land and was used for decades until rapid expansion convinced leaders to build a new church on separate acreage to the rear. The new church opened in 1996, but the old building was retained for other church and community uses.What sparked Topp’s lawsuit was a 1993 agreement the church reached with the state Department of Transportation providing for a park and ride lot on church-owned property. The lawsuit states the church received payments totaling $70,000 for a 15-year lease.The lawsuit alleges that the parking lot was partly located on that land deeded to the church by Austin Marshall. It claims “approximately 23 stalls for said park-and-ride were located on the property that Austin Marshall conveyed. . . .in addition, a driveway for accessing said park-and-ride is located on the property conveyed by the 1954 deed.” Therefore, the church is using part of the property for non-church purposes.Lindus denied 23 parking spaces were ever located on the Marshall property. There may have been five or six originally, he said, but they were later relocated. “There are no park and ride spots on the eight-tenths (of an acre),” Lindus said. The church campus encompasses over 19 acres of land, including the park and ride lot which is used by the public Monday through Friday, and by church-goers on the weekends.Lindus acknowledges that the access road to the parking lot and new church is located on part of the old Marshall land, and he worries that if Topp should win the lawsuit the church will lose its only access road to the highway.Lindus said that bigger issue is whether the land is still being used for church purposes as Austin Marshall intended, and to that question he answers an emphatic yes. Sunday school is still held in the old building, church groups meet there, the building includes a chapel, and the church offices are there. In addition, some 35 community organizations meet in the building, which is Freeland’s most popular gathering place. “We see everything we do as part of our mission to serve the community,” Lindus said.Church leaders are worried that Topp has retained the large Seattle-based law firm of Perkins Coie to represent her. The church has hired another Seattle firm, Mills, Meyers & Swartling, as its representative.“It’s going to be expensive,” Lindus said.Topp was reached by telephone at her home Monday evening but declined to comment on the lawsuit. “I’m not talking about this to anyone,” she said. The lawsuit asks the court to order the church to vacate the disputed property, and that it be returned to her family.The suit was filed in Island County Superior Court. The summons was received by the church on Dec. 2, and it was given 20 days to respond in writing."

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