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COURT INVOLVES ATTORNEY GENERAL IN DISPUTE OVER HISTORIC CHURCH

State Attorney General Dennis C. Vacco was directed by a judge Thursday to intervene in the 3-year-old battle over the fate of a historic Buffalo church.

State Supreme Court Justice Jerome C. Gorski ordered Vacco's intervention amid efforts by attorneys for a Texas church group to seek financial sanctions against the city over the former Asbury Delaware United Methodist Church at Delaware Avenue and West Tupper Street.

Gorski reserved decision on the Fort Worth-based Kingdom Evangelical Missionary Church's request for sanctions. And after complaints from city attorneys and attorneys for Key Bank about the group's behavior, Gorski called for Vacco to intervene.

Ordering further court proceedings next month, Gorski said Vacco's office will have to review the dispute under the state's obligation to protect the public interest in matters involving not-for-profit organizations.

The church group wants to sell the parking lot of the 127-year-old Medina sandstone church to a Buffalo business.

Vacco spokesman Mike Zabel said he anticipates the attorney general's office "will be in contact with all parties in the dispute before deciding what action is appropriate."

Laurence D. Behr, attorney for the church group, which has owned the Buffalo church for six years, said it only wants to pay off its Key Bank mortgage with proceeds from the sale of the parking lot.

Corporation Counsel Michael B. Risman and Assistant Corporation Counsel David J. State said the city is considering a public-nuisance suit against Behr's clients. They said the church group's incorporation in Texas was recently suspended because of failure to pay an annual fee.

Risman said the church building, which was ordered demolished for safety reasons in November 1996, only to have its crumbling towers fortified after months of court fights last year, "is still rather dangerous."

The sidewalks near the church remained blocked off. In November 1996, West Tupper Street between Delaware and Franklin Street was reopened to vehicular traffic after being closed for nearly a year because of concerns over the church's structure, especially its steeple.

"Our goal is to see the building repaired and restored by its owners, because there are still public safety issues unresolved," Risman said.

Tim Tielman, executive director of the Preservation Coalition of Erie County, said his group is watching the latest court fight over the landmark church very closely.

"We have seen no sincere or vigorous efforts by the current owner of the church to cooperate with the courts and public sentiment and attempt to sell the church," Tielman said.

During Thursday's court session, Robert J. Kresse, a well-known local preservationist, warned the judge that sale of the church parking lot would "destroy the value of that landmark (church) to the community" because the lot is the "major asset" of the church site.

Key Bank attorney Michael E. Ferdman warned the judge that the bank, which holds a mortgage on the church site, believes Behr's clients are "clearly ruining a Buffalo landmark."

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