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Chester Brittingham’s fateful bequest to Groome Church

Chester Brittingham and his wife, Mary, have a grave marker in Bethel Methodist Cemetery on Savannah Road in Lewes, across the street from Groome United Methodist Church. A dairy farmer on his New Road land, Chester attended evening meetings at the church from time to time through the years. DENNIS FORNEY PHOTOS
October 6, 2017

Four times a year, members of Groome United Methodist Church in Lewes place flowers on a gravestone in the town's Bethel Methodist Cemetery. The stone memorializes the lives of Ira and Bessie Brittingham on one side, and their son, Chester, and his wife, Mary, on the other side.

The flowers are placed each Christmas, Easter, Memorial Day and Thanksgiving in accordance with a request made by Chester in his will. They balance the equation created in that will, which was executed in 1971 following his death. With his wife and parents dead and having no heirs, Chester left his entire estate - after debts and funeral expenses were paid - to Groome Church.

The estate included the family farm on New Road that is now in a swirl of controversy. Chester stipulated that his assets - including real estate - be converted to cash that would be given to the church.

Hazel Brittingham - no relation - is a historian and lifelong member of Groome. For further information, she pointed me to Ralph William Prettyman's 1998 book called “The History of Tower Hill.” The book provides an extensive history of the land along New Road, between Canary Creek and Black Hog Gut, known as the Tower Hill tract, dating back to the late 1600s. Members of the Prettyman family owned the better part of the Tower Hill tract for 200 years, but that's a story for a different day.

Prettyman included a copy of Chester's will in his book and a further discussion of how the property changed hands through the centuries, with some of it eventually purchased by Chester's parents.

In his discussion of Chester's bequest to Groome, Prettyman notes that church officials - led by W. Murray Joseph - signed an agreement to abide by the terms of the will. They were given a check for $4,313.52 representing the residue of Chester's estate, which was used to make improvements to the church. That check, however, didn't include the value of the real estate.

The officials decided to have the church buy the Brittingham real estate at public auction, knowing, of course, that the money they spent to buy the property would come back to them by the terms of the will. The real estate involved a large parcel of about 138 acres on the north side of New Road and straddling Ritter Road, and a couple of smaller pieces on the south side of New Road. After placing the highest bids - something in the vicinity of $150,000 - church officials took ownership and sold off the smaller tracts to make further improvements, but they decided to retain the largest parcel. That foresight parlayed Chester's bequest into a legacy now worth millions of dollars.

My personal ambivalence

I've been an off-and-on member of Groome Church since the late 1970s when I first moved to Lewes. As a backslider in recent years, I've been aware of efforts over the past decade to finally sell the New Road property but have stayed out of the discussions. I've also been aware of efforts by the state and others to acquire the property, or at least development rights, to preserve open space along the New Road corridor.

As a longtime member of Sussex County Land Trust, I've been a steady and vocal advocate for preserving open space. As publisher of the Cape Gazette, I've written countless editorials celebrating the value of open space. But I've also been a property rights advocate and have never felt the paper should meddle editorially in how people handle the sale of their private property. Zoning issues, yes. Private sales, no.

The current controversy involving the Groome land comes down to the congregation's decision to sell the land to a developer rather than taking a deal reportedly of lesser value that would preserve the land as open space. As a loyal member of the church, it piques me to hear the good people of the congregation vilified as greedy or less Christian because of their decision.

The City of Lewes has been aware of the efforts to craft a deal to preserve the land. But no money has been offered to sweeten the deal. If the town is as vitally concerned as appears about the prospect of the Groome land making way for hundreds of dwellings and its impact on New Road traffic, it could go to referendum to try to raise money to get in the game. So far that doesn't seem to be happening.

I often quote architect Frank Lloyd Wright when it comes to such issues. "If you want the view, you have to buy the view." If you want to buy the view, you typically have to pay the fair market price. A property’s worth is typically defined by what someone is willing to pay.

Groome's congregation, demonstrated by a 98 percent supportive vote according to the Rev. Will Crossan, wants to sell the land, buy another piece of property, build a new church, and ensure future sustainability with an endowment that would help fund operating expenses, and allow an expansion of ministry and mission outreach in the community. The more the property brings, the more sustainable will be the church's future and mission.

That approach is in keeping with Chester Brittingham's stated desire to leverage his assets into the greatest benefit for the church. His will stipulated the sale of his "personal property and real estate, at either public or private sale, to the highest and best bidder."