Bishop J. Jon Bruno has won an expensive skirmish in the legal war over a prominent church property in the Diocese of Los Angeles. A California Superior Court judge has nullified a use restriction that barred the use of the property for anything other than a church.
The court also ordered the diocese to pay $108,182.51 in attorney fees to the developer who had imposed the use restriction, because an appeals court had rejected the diocese’s claim for slander of title. The diocese had alleged that the developer’s assertion about the use restriction had improperly harmed the value or salability of the property.
The ruling is likely to have little practical effect, as Bruno has been forbidden to sell the property by the presiding bishop and by a hearing panel that is weighing disciplinary charges against Bruno in the two-year-old controversy.
Despite the attorney fees, the diocese treated the ruling as a victory. The diocese, which up to now has been steadfastly silent outside of courtrooms and legal filings, sent an announcement under the heading “Superior Court rules in favor of the Bishop as Corporation Sole on Newport Beach property title.”
All this comes as the diocese celebrated the July 8 consecration of Bruno’s eventual successor. The Rt. Rev. John Harvey Taylor was consecrated as bishop coadjutor, with Bruno and Presiding Bishop Michael Curry among the celebrants. Bruno, 70, faces mandatory retirement when he turns 72 late next year.
When the Griffith Company, a major California developer, donated a section of prime Newport Beach real estate to the diocese in 1945, the deed specified that the land could be used “for church purposes only.” The site was being used by the St. James Mission Church, the congregants of which built a 40,000-square-foot facility there that eventually had 1,500 parishioners.
The attempt to enforce the use restriction was part of an effort to block Bruno’s plan, announced in May 2015, to sell the property to a condominium developer for $15 million. That sale later fell through, but Bruno ordered the locks of the property changed on July 29, 2015, and the facility has been vacant ever since.
The congregation, which renamed the facility St. James the Great after it was reopened following earlier litigation, is led by the Rev. Canon Cindy Voorhees and has continued to worship in other locations, primarily in the Newport Beach City Hall. The congregation has incorporated as Save Saint James the Great.