As the 5Cities Homeless Coalition (5CHC) tries to complete a purchase of Hillside Church in Grover Beach to develop a homeless services facility, an ownership dispute at the church is breaking out, potentially threatening the sale.
On May 6, William John Fleming, an opponent of the sale who claims he's the president of Hillside Church, filed paperwork with the state and county clerk that granted ownership of the property back to Bethel Baptist Church of Grover Beach, which was the church's original affiliation dating back to 1962.
In recent years, the church had moved under the umbrella of Christian and Missionary Alliance (CMA)—a nationwide congregation. In October 2018, then-pastor Ron Kennedy filed papers transferring the property from Bethel Baptist Church to Hillside Church of CMA.
Fleming could not be reached by press time, but he had argued against the sale to the SLO County Board of Supervisors on April 23, before the board would allocate $2.7 million in state grants to help subsidize the 5CHC project planned at the site.
Fleming said he was a board member at the church.
"I can tell you that the bylaws of Bethel Baptist Church were not followed when it was turned into a [CMA] church," Fleming told the board. "I want everyone here to be aware of the fact that we're not going to sit and take this. We are going to seek remedy."
Following his May 6 deed filing, according to the SLO County Assessor's Office, the church is back in the hands of Bethel Baptist Church, with Fleming as its agent.
"As far as we're concerned at this point, Bethel Baptist is now the owner," County Assessor Tom Bordonaro told New Times on May 14.
Bordonaro added that a challenge of the transfer would have to happen in court.
Representatives of CMA and the Hillside Church could not be reached by press time.
Sometime after the property changed hands to Hillside Church of CMA in 2018, the 5CHC entered into talks to buy the church property. The sale is currently in escrow.
"We've been made aware that there isn't necessarily a clear title," said Janna Nichols, executive director of 5CHC. "We're hoping that can be resolved soon. In the meantime, homelessness is still a crisis down here."
On Mother's Day, Fleming led a Sunday service outside the locked church on Newport Avenue, where he was joined by residents of the neighborhood who are opposed to the homeless services project that may replace it. Grover Beach police stood guard.
Willie Heck, a pastor of four years at Hillside Church, told New Times he and its remaining members are looking for a new location to worship.
"It was ugly," Heck said about the dispute. "It's just a shame. ... People are forgetting that church is about the people and not the buildings." Δ