The fate of a little library kiosk on the corner of a Five Points plot was the focus of a civil suit heard in Sussex Superior Court Sept. 7.
The Lewes Public Library filed suit against New Covenant Presbyterian Church to determine once and for all who owns the 2.5-acre parcel of land. Sussex Superior Court Judge Mark Connor heard testimony from both sides during the one-day trial, and he will make his decision once he receives written closing arguments from the attorneys and their respective responses. Attorneys will have 30 days to submit their closing statements once they have received the court transcript. Then they will have another 15 days to respond to the closing statements before the case finally goes to Connor to decide.
Whether a piece of property in Five Points belongs to the Lewes Public Library or New Covenant Church hinges a great deal on what the developer intended, but neither side called the developer as a witness.
Dan Griffith, attorney for New Covenant Presbyterian Church, said both sides agreed not to subpoena developer Christian Hudson, whose former Five Points property is the crux of a land battle between the church and library, because of his standing in the community. Besides, library attorney Eric Hacker said, most of the reference is to the developer, not Hudson specifically, and the developer’s LLC no longer exists.
A 2020 lawsuit filed by the Lewes Public Library and a subsequent countersuit filed by the church, both seeking summary judgment that would give them the land, was denied by Sussex Superior Court Judge Richard F. Stokes because the intent of the developer was unclear, and so was the definition of a library facility.
In the latest court battle, the Lewes Public Library contends the 2.5-acre plot was deeded to it in 2012 as part of a conditional use when Hudson applied to build a CVS off Savannah Road at the entrance to the Five Points development.
As part of the condition to accept the deed, the library was required to build a library structure within 10 years, something it did in March 2019 when it constructed a book kiosk on a corner of the property.
The church, however, contends that the developer intended the land for a new, full-service library facility, one that was eventually built near downtown Lewes. Since the library was built in Lewes instead of the Five Points site, the church believes the donor’s deed restriction makes clear that the property should go to the church.
“The library must prove that it abided by every condition placed on the deed,” Griffith said.
The developer’s original agreement called for the land to go first to the Five Points Homeowners’ Association if not used by the library, and if the HOA could not accept it, then it would go to the church. After a few months of fighting for the property, the HOA eventually backed out of the fight, leaving only the church.
As his first witness, Hacker called Glynnis Healey, also known as Becky, who served as president of the library’s board of commissioners, during discussions over the land parcel.
Under oath, she said she was surprised when she learned the library had accepted the land because her email exchange with Hudson at the time led her to believe that he would give a cash donation to the library in lieu of the land.
By January 2013, she said, the library decided to accept the parcel, and they filled out an IRS form and filed paperwork with the county for approval of the kiosk.
Hugh Leahy, another former president of the library board of commissioners, was called next as a witness, to talk about the library’s finances. With about $1 million in debt from building the new library in town, he said, selling the Five Points property was always an option. “That certainly was a primary focus,” he said. He added that the debt was successfully retired in 2019.
Candace Vessella, president of the Friends of the Lewes Public Library, recalled giving a presentation to a group of people, including Hudson, about the Five Points property and the library’s plans for the parcel. She said she researched different designs of small, free-standing structures that house library books for community use before the Five Points structure was built. Since then, she said, she and her husband have helped maintain the kiosk.
“Each time I’ve gone to the facility, it has been quite full,” she said. “I’ve personally donated books as well. It’s been well used.”
Vessella also testified that the county ordinances approving the kiosk structure made no mention of the New Covenant Presbyterian Church being in line to accept the land donation, if the library did not fulfill its obligations to accept the land.
The last witness was Pastor Robert Dekker of the New Covenant Presbyterian Church, who said he has had conversations with Hudson as a parishioner, but not from a business perspective in terms of the land. Under questioning, he said he could not recall whether the church had responded to correspondence from the library regarding the parcel before the library filed its lawsuit.
“It was awful to be sued,” Dekker said. “We would like for it to be a win-win … we are not eager to be in court.”