Legal counsel for the Rt. Rev. J. Jon Bruno, Bishop of Los Angeles, confirmed June 22 that Bruno has signed an agreement to sell St. James the Great Church in Newport Beach, setting up a confrontation between Bruno and a church disciplinary panel that ordered him not to sell.

The sale, scheduled to close on July 3, is to Burnham-Ward Properties LLC, a well-regarded local developer. This potentially sets up a separate confrontation with the Newport Beach City Council, some members of which have expressed strong opposition to changing the zoning designation of the property.

According to email from Julie Dean Larsen, a vice chancellor of the diocese who has been representing the bishop, Bruno was unable to disclose the proposed sale when the disciplinary panel asked about it June 14 because of a confidentiality agreement. Larsen said the confidentiality agreement was modified earlier in the day June 22 to enable her to respond. The email, which does not mention a price or intended use for the property, was provided to TLC by the church’s media spokesman, Roger Bloom.

Larsen said that under the contract with Burnham, if the bishop fails to sign documents necessary to close the sale, he will be in default, which would give the buyer “the option of terminating the agreement, seeking specific performance of the agreement in court within 60 days, or seeking out-of-pocket costs.”

A hearing panel chaired by the Rt. Rev. Herman Hollerith IV, Bishop of Southern Virginia, issued an emergency order on June 17 sanctioning Bruno, forbidding him to sell the property until further order of the panel and criticizing his failure to confirm or deny that there was a planned sale as “disruptive, dilatory, and otherwise contrary to the integrity of this proceeding.”

The order is part of an internal church process and is not enforceable in court, but the panel has the authority to strip Bruno of his bishop’s title, and even of his priesthood.

In late March, the hearing panel listened to more than 20 hours of public testimony for three days in a hotel conference room regarding the fallout from Bruno’s first attempt to sell the church. That $15 million agreement fell through after the congregation launched legal and disciplinary action against the bishop.

That agreement was with a different developer, which intended to bulldoze the church property and build luxury condominiums. According to its website, Burnham-Ward specializes in office, retail, and industrial developments. It does not list any residential developments in its portfolio.

City Council Member and former Mayor Diane Dixon, who testified at the March hearing, said earlier this week that after the 2015 sale attempt, “the community went into uproar, and that’s when the council reaffirmed its support for that land use designation. It would require a zoning change and numerous changes through the legislative process.” The site is designated “private institutional, which includes church or school,” she said, adding that she continues to be opposed to changing the use of the property.

In her email message, Larsen said the bishop and Burnham-Ward signed a confidentiality agreement and sales contract for St. James the Great on April 19 and May 20, respectively. A “sale and deconsecration of the NPB Property was authorized and reaffirmed by the Standing Committee on November 16, 2016,” she said.

According to testimony in March, that authorization referred to the previous attempt to sell the property and came more than a year after Bruno signed a binding agreement to sell.

The 40,000-square-foot church at 3209 Via Lido in Newport Beach sits on prime real estate overlooking the bridge to Lido Island, which is home to a yacht club and multimillion-dollar homes. The property has been unused since June 2015, when Bruno ordered the locks changed.

The congregation, led since 2013 by the Rev. Canon Cindy Voorhees, has been worshiping in a community room at City Hall in Newport Beach.

Bruno, along with senior members of his staff and his defense team, did not respond to requests for comment. Voorhees and Hollerith also declined to comment. A woman who answered the telephone before West Coast business hours at Burnham-Ward said she would convey questions to appropriate company officials, who have not yet responded.

Kirk Petersen

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