ZEPHYR COVE - A group of cabin owners have filed suit against the Presbyterian Church to block their upcoming eviction from the Zephyr Point Conference Grounds.
The suit, filed on behalf of the Zephyr Point Leaseholders Association, claims that the church misled the cabin owners when the last lease was signed in 1986. As many as 55 leaseholders - some whose families have vacationed on the property since the 1920s - are to be forced out when their current leases run out in 2001.
The Sierra Mission Partnership, a Sacramento-based Presbyterian Church alliance which oversees operations at the Conference Grounds, is planning a major renovation on the property. Those plans call for many of the vacation cabins to be torn down or removed.
"The leaseholders want what they bargained for. They contend they were duped," said Kent Robison, a Reno attorney who is representing the leaseholders. "They want a substantial compensation of value of what they gave to the church, or a reasonable alternative. These are cabin owners who are being told that they either have to move their cabins or have them torn down. You can't just plop down a cabin anywhere in Tahoe."
Representatives of the Zephyr Point Presbyterian Conference Grounds refused to comment on the matter.
The Conference Grounds, nestled on the eastern shore of Lake Tahoe at the northern tip of Zephyr Cove, have been a popular retreat for church groups and other organizations for several decades. The property includes a half-mile of beachfront and 75 cabins, of which 55 are owned and occupied by leaseholders.
"The leaseholders and the church have been operating on a series of 15-year leases," Robison said. "When the last lease was signed, the leaseholders were told that they would get more than 15 years if they signed. Now they feel betrayed. These people own these cabins. There are some real estate entitlements here that will be explored."
"They want us all out of there, and I don't think that's fair," said John Packer, one of the cabin owners. "Many of the families have been there since 1926, when the Conference Grounds were founded. I grew up there."
Packer said that the leaseholders have approached the church many times with the intention of resolving the issue, but that they have been rebuffed.
"What (the church) appears to be doing is taking the assets of the leaseholders without compensation," said Bob Wallin, the president of the Zephyr Point Leaseholders Association. "There's a value to the sewer and water hookups that have been maintained by the leaseholders over the years. There are occupancy issues. There are some very strong feelings about the way we've been treated."
Carlton Penwell, 53, has been visiting the Conference Grounds since childhood.
"I don't represent anybody, and I'm not a leaseholder," he said. "But my observation is that the Presbyterian Church let the place wither over a period of time in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It was the leaseholders who maintained the integrity of the place over those years - not all of them, but several of them. Now they want to pull the plug on these folks."
Current plans for the property call for a 500-seat auditorium, a parking garage and a senior facility.
"I have many fond memories there," Penwell said. "I was there just four months ago, and we stayed in cabin No. 7, which I understand is one of the cabins scheduled to be removed. It's very sad. I just can't help but wonder why there is no middle ground. I'm a Presbyterian myself, and one would think that the two sides would extend a hand to each other and work this out."