Church group asks to hold services in firehouse

Shelter Island’s Board of Fire Commissioners is mulling a request by a religious group to use one of the district’s firehouse meeting rooms for regular Sunday services.

Reverend Thomas Charls of Grace Evangelical Church on Monday night asked the board for permission to use one of the facilities for Sunday morning services. The church group, numbering “a handful” of parishioners, according to the Reverend Charls, has been meeting lately at Camp Quinipet. When the camp season starts up, the group will need a new home.

The Island congregation is about 30 years old, Reverend Charls said.

It started meeting at the Shelter Island Library, where it remained for some 20 years before moving to the Senior Activity Center in the town-owned Medical Center. The library arrangement ended because there were complaints about a church group using public property, according to Reverend Charls.

He went to Councilwoman Christine Lewis, the Town Board’s senior liaison, to ask if the group could use the Senior Activity Center. She said in a phone interview Wednesday that she had informally asked Town Board members for their thoughts and no one had objected. There was never a formal resolution.

“I think we saw it as a temporary fix for a small group of people who needed a little help,” Ms. Lewis said Wednesday.

As the church group became more visible, she said, there were new complaints about the use of public property for religious purposes. Reverend Charls received a letter from the councilwoman last February in which she wrote “too many people are aware of this now,” Reverend Charls said. That sent the church group to Camp Quinipet and the subsequent request to the fire commissioners for space beginning this spring.

Reverend Charls asked for use of fire department space — possibly the Heights firehouse upstairs meeting room — between 10:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m., although services generally last about an hour and a half, he later explained.

Commissioner Ron Jernick questioned the idea of allowing a church group to use the fire district’s taxpayer-funded facility, saying he was uncomfortable with the idea. Other commissioners echoed his concerns after the meeting.

Reverend Charls noted that fire district facilities have been used by other churches for one-time special events but not regular Sunday worship services. A decision will be made on the request at the commissioners’ March 26 meeting, chairman Richard Surozenski said.

The church request wasn’t the only request on the agenda for using fire district space. The American Legion mens and ladies winter bowling leagues want to use the meeting room for a season-ending dinner.

“I think we’re going to get deluged with people wanting to use the firehouse,” Commissioner Andy Steinmuller said. “We’re responsible for the building.”

Another concern raised Monday was who would be responsible in case of a mishap or accident. “We really have to start getting strict about this,” Mr. Surozenski said.

Second Assistant Fire Chief Will Anderson argued that the department’s insurers should cover such private use of the facility but attorney Helen Rosenblum said groups need to get their own insurance and also need one-day licenses if liquor is to be served. That didn’t sit well with Mr. Anderson, who argued that making space available to various groups is a community service.

Also on Monday, the commissioners welcomed Warren Baker as a new department member.