On Thursday, February 9, 2023, a Hillsborough County (Tampa), Florida jury reached a verdict and found for Bayshore Christian School in its long pending litigation against the Board of Trustees of the Florida Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.
The case, Board of Trustees of the Florida Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church v. Bayshore Christian School in Tampa, Florida, was litigated by the law firm Dalton & Tomich PLC who had the distinct honor and pleasure of representing Bayshore Christian School. In this case, the Board of Trustees of the Florida Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church sued the school to remove it from the property it has been using for the past 51 years in south Tampa. In addition, the Board of Trustees of the Florida Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church sought $6 million dollars from the school for “rent” and other damages.
Bayshore Christian School serves 340 children in grades pre-kindergarten through High School. The school is unique in that it provides a quality education at a very affordable price. Many of the families the school serves are in the military just down the road at MacDill Airforce base. In the past 51 years, the school has a special relationship with the military base and its families. It is well equipped to help families with the transition through the school when military transfers occur. Serving military families is a unique part of the story of Bayshore Christian School. No other school has the experience and familiarity to address the families. A video of the property is here:
Bayshore Christian school primarily serves hardworking blue-collar families in the south Tampa area. There is no other school in the Tampa area like Bayshore Christian School. The tuition is low, affordable and within reach of most families who are looking for a place to send their children for a quality Christian education. The school offers advance placement courses, dual enrollment courses at a local college. Most of its students are high level achievers who have gone on to attend military academies, ivy league schools, and all of the institutions of higher learning in and throughout Florida.
Bayshore Christian School was founded in 1971. It has always been, its own legal entity and its own school. It has its own Board of Directors, its own employees, and is not part of a religious denomination. Nor has it ever been. The original founders of Bayshore Christian School were members of Bayshore Church – a separate entity. At the time of the school’s founding, the Church was rather larger with nearly 2000 people attending each weekend to hear Rev. Bob Shelly speak.
The school began with two grades which were taught in the Sunday school classrooms of the Church. The school quickly grew and occupied all of the Sunday school classrooms, the church fellowship hall and sanctuary. And by the late 1970s, the school was established with nearly 400 children from kindergarten through high school. And at the same time, the Church and school began purchasing additional land near the property for future expansion.
With the exception of a lake on the property, all of the dry land at 3909 South MacDill – and two nearby parsonages (which are homes for pastors) – were purchased, developed, and maintained by members of the Church and the School, only. And the Board of Trustees never provided any financial assistance to the school or church to buy the land, build the buildings or maintain them.
By the late 1970s, the school was out of space and additional buildings needed to be built to educate the students of Bayshore Christian School. The school purchased three lots or parcels – called 11, 11b and 12. A donor provided the funding, and a decision was made to construct a Family Life Center on the School owned lots of 11 and 12. The Family Life Center, built in 1980, is much more than a gym – the high school is located in the building. The building has classrooms, a full gym, a weight room, and other rooms used for educational purposes.
The school continuously used all of the land it owned and all of the land the church owned, for its educational purposes the past 20 years, and then some. The school’s use of the land has never been interrupted in the past 20 years. The school’s use of the land has been known, or the knowledge has been imputed to the Board of Trustees for over 20 years. The school’s use of the land is defined by lots and fences for over 20 years. And the school’s use of the land had been adverse to the Plaintiff Board of Trustees who was capable at any time to remove the school from the property but failed to do so.
In 1985, Bayshore Christian School applied for accreditation from the Florida Independent Schools, but did not receive the accreditation because it lacked a media center – a library and computer lab – as required by the accrediting agency. Therefore, a decision was made to build a media center. The only question was where the building would be built and how it would be paid for. It was soon determined that the best location would be on an area called the “red top,” an area that is between the Church sanctuary and the family life center. However, the location posed an issue as it involved three parcels of land – two of which were owned by the Church and one by the school.
The City of Tampa would not issue a building permit for the construction of the media center based on the dual ownership of land, and the City would not issue an occupancy permit with shared ownership as access and parking requirements for zoning were needed to accomplish the same. Therefore, a decision was made to have the school give its three parcels of land – lots 11, 11b, and 12 – solely to allow construction of the media center. The school did not sell these three lots to the church. Rather, the school gave the lots to the church. Two of the parcels were already developed with the family life center – which was built by the school, and one was undeveloped at that time. Indeed, the school had no reason to give developed property it was using to the church – the sole purpose was to allow construction of the media center to qualify for accreditation
Just prior, in 1983, before the decision was made by the school to transfer property to the church, a very large fracture occurred between the Board of Trustees and the Church which caused the school to become concerned about the property transfer. The fracture involved the removal of Rev. Shelly from Bayshore Church by the Florida Annual Conference. At this point in time – that is, 1983 during the removal of Rev. Shelly – that the Church and School leaders first learned of the United Methodist Church Trust Clause in the Book of Discipline. And in this case, once Rev. Shelly was abruptly moved out of the Church – to the dismay of its members of the church – the Board of Trustees “reminded” the leaders of the Church that it could – at any time – take its property pursuant to Trust Clause in the Discipline through an undefined charge of “exigent circumstances” – something that it eventually did 34 years later in 2017. As a result of the Board of Trustees’ removal of Rev. Shelly, people stopped attending Bayshore United Methodist Church. This started a slow – then very fast – decline of membership from nearly 2000 in 1983 to about 100 people in 2017.
Out of the concern that the Conference would close Bayshore United Methodist Church, the school conferred with Stewart Eggert, a preeminent authority on real estate law in Tampa – as to how best to protect itself when transferring its property to the school. A deed was prepared by Mr. Eggert in 1986 who had the foresight to address the issue we have today – that is, a deed provides that should the Conference ever close the church and take the property, the school could remain on the property and continue using the same until it chose to close.
The school board president – who signed the deed – thought that the use of the words “subject premises” in the deed referred to lots 11, 11b and 12 and the use of the words “the premises” referred to the entire school property. His belief is based on the context of the words in the deed – which includes the trust clause language that says,
“IN TRUST, that said premises shall be kept, maintained, and disposed of for the benefit of The United Methodist Church. This provision is solely for the benefit of second party and first party reserves no right or interest in said premises, except that the premise are currently being used for school and related purposes by first party and first party shall continue to make use thereof until it chooses to vacate the premises.”
The school – referred in the deed as the party of the first party – continued to use the premises and has stayed on the premises – which means that pursuant to this deed, the School CANNOT be evicted or ejected from the property.
At or near the time of the deed being signed, the school board president prepared a memorandum that described in detail why the deed was prepared in the manner in which it was and that the point of this deed was that it was to protect the school from the Plaintiff. The Conference had 20 years to challenge the deed to “reform” it. The Plaintiff neglected to do so. The Court ruled that the deed could no longer be challenged because the Plaintiff failed to do so in a timely manner.
By 1991, church attendance was declining, and the school was gaining strength through enrollment, academic achievement, athletics, and fine arts. Therefore, the school board and the church board entered into a covenant and resolution in 1991 providing that the school would pick up more of the joint expenses of the premises at 3909 South MacDill – since many of the expenses were singularly billed, and the school had the ability to pay more than the church – and the covenant that was prepared, signed and sent to the Conference over 32 years ago confirmed that the School could use the property of the Church for free.
By 2016, the Church attendance had declined, and membership was at a level of about 100 people. The Florida Annual Conference approached the school and told it that it would be closing the church and to NOT let the church leadership become aware of the closure. Thereafter, the Conference performed an analysis of church vitality resulting in the foregone conclusion that the church should be closed. And the Conference unilaterally voted to close the church using “exigent circumstances” pursuant to the Book of Discipline.
The goal of the Board of Trustees in this case was to remove the school from the property, have it pay millions of dollars to it, then sell the property to a developer for $19.2 million dollars to build 32 residential homes on the property.
Between 2007 and 2016, the Florida Annual Conference made up its budget shortfalls by closing nearly one hundred of local Methodist church properties through a process called exigent circumstances and selling the property. Many more churches have closed between 2016 and 2022.
Prior to 2016, the Board of Trustees had never been to the school, and none of the Methodist entities have paid for land or for the maintenance of the property. More importantly, that the Plaintiff – the Board of Trustees never paid for a mortgage, insurance, ad valorum taxes or anything else related to the property. The Board of Trustees never asked the school to pay anything. The same was true with the non-ad valorum taxes. Instead, the Conference, a separate entity from the Plaintiff, paid these expenses however, it never requested any payment from the School.
The school defended this matter on basis of the doctrine of prescriptive easement arguing that:
- The school had actual, continuous, and uninterrupted use of the property for a period of 20 years – actually 51 years.
- The school’s use of the property had been either with the actual knowledge of the owner or so open, notorious, and visible that knowledge of the use was imputed to the Board of Trustees for 20 years.
- The School’s use pertained to a limited and defined area of land, being the land of 3909 South MacDill Avenue, Tampa, Florida.
- The school’s such use was adverse to and inconsistent with the Board of Trustees’ use and enjoyment of the lands. That is,
(a) the use has been made without the permission of the owner and under some claim of right other than permission from the owner,
(b) the use has been either exclusive of the owner or inconsistent with the rights of the owner of the land to its use and enjoyment, and
(c) the use has been such that, during the whole prescribed period, the owner had a cause of action against the user for the use being made.
The Conference claimed an ownership interest in the property in two manners – through the trust clause which provides that it is capable of taking the property at any time, for any reason, it desires by simply declaring “exigent circumstances,” and through forced place insurance on the property.
After four hours of deliberation, the jury unanimously found Bayshore Christian School had obtained a prescriptive easement thereby permitting the School to continue using the property indefinitely.. In essence, the jury found Bayshore Christian School’s continuous, uninterrupted, and open use of the defined property also was adverse to and inconsistent with the Board of Trustees’ rights and enjoyment to such property. Additionally, the jury found the Plaintiff, Board of Trustees, was entitled to damages under its unjust enrichment claim. However, by finding the School prevailed on all required elements under the doctrine of prescriptive easement, the jury reached a verdict that the School had a right to continue using the property and could not be ejected.
“With this verdict, the jury has allowed Bayshore Christian School to remain on the property and continue its ministry in the south Tampa area for decades to come,” said Daniel Dalton, one of the trial counsels in this case. “We are thrilled for the school and look forward to a bright future for families seeking to secure a quality Christian education in South Tampa.
February 9, 2023