Lawsuit over Aspen Chapel threatens longstanding relations
Dispute between Aspen Jewish Congregation and The Aspen Chapel spills into court
A more than 30-year relationship between two Aspen religious congregations appears in jeopardy after one filed a lawsuit against the other last week in Pitkin County District Court.
The dispute between the Aspen Jewish Congregation and The Aspen Chapel centers on an agreement signed in 1989 between the entities to share the same facility near the roundabout west of Aspen. That agreement to “mutually maintain and use certain religious facilities located at 77 Meadowood Drive … for a period of 99 years” worked for more than 30 years, according to the lawsuit filed Friday by the Jewish Congregation.
“However, in or around September 2020, the Aspen Chapel unexpectedly took the position that the 1989 agreement did not exist, and that the AJC was nothing more than a month-to-month tenant that could be ejected at any time,” the lawsuit states. “The Aspen Chapel has refused to acknowledge the agreement, and has instead demanded that AJC vacate the Chapel, or face eviction proceedings.”
The Aspen Jewish Congregation isn’t seeking monetary damages in the lawsuit, but rather wants the District Court to declare the more than 30-year-old agreement valid and binding and enforce the contract while forcing the Aspen Chapel to provide “an accounting of joint venture assets,” according to the suit.
Barbara Owen, secretary of the board of trustees that runs the chapel, said Monday that the agreement did indeed govern the interfaith relationship for more than 30 years, until expensive maintenance of the 50-year-old building became necessary. First the boiler broke in 2018 but the AJC refused to pay its share of the $10,000 replacement, she said.
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Then when it came time to replace the roof, the board of trustees, who felt the agreement required joint payment of building maintenance, didn’t want the same issues to crop up, Owen said. So they asked the AJC to sign a lease clearly defining the maintenance responsibilities, she said.
The AJC instead said it would pay its share but asked the board to affirm the original agreement in exchange for the money, according to Owen and the lawsuit. Chapel officials have refused that deal, the lawsuit states.
The AJC says in the suit that it has paid its “proportionate share” of repairs, including the boiler in 2018.
Owen said Chapel officials feel they can cast aside the more than 30-year governing agreement because it was never signed. Neither side can produce a signed copy, she said.
“No one has a signed copy,” Owen said. “The agreement says if it’s unsigned, it’s not valid.”
A copy of the agreement submitted with AJC’s lawsuit is unsigned and undated. Despite that, the AJC lawsuit alleges the agreement was, in fact, signed.
“The Aspen Chapel publicly acknowledges that the Chapel Agreement was agreed to, adopted and signed by the parties,” according to the lawsuit.
Owen said she hopes the dispute can be resolved.
“We want for them to stay,” she said. “We want to work this out.”
A message left Monday for Craig Navias, AJC president, was not returned.
However, in a message sent Sunday to members of the Jewish congregation, Navias said legal action was not the preferred route but was chosen to avoid eviction.
“The validity of the 1989 agreement appears to be at the core of our dispute, as the Chapel continues to maintain that the agreement is invalid and that they have the right to dictate new, far less favorable terms under which the AJC can remain in the chapel,” Navias wrote. “Please also know that we reached out to the Chapel following the complaint filing in the continued hope that we can sit down with them and reach a resolution without involving the courts.”
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Mountain Rescue Aspen had a busy day Thursday responding to two separate incidents.