Legionaries unveil Thornwood college plans

The Journal News/July 13, 2003
By Michael Gannon

Mount Pleasant -- Amid a groundswell of community concern and with significant hurdles still to clear, the Legion of Christ has kicked off its efforts to build a 3,000-student Catholic university in Thornwood.

Representatives of the conservative Roman Catholic order on Thursday night appeared in front of the town's Zoning Board of Appeals, initiating the lengthy local regulatory application process they will need to follow to begin building the $200 million Westchester University, the undergraduate college's working name, by 2006.

John Marwell, the legion's Mount Kisco-based lawyer, led the order's cadre of consultants in introducing the project at the meeting, which was attended by nearly 100 residents of the area.

"There's a lot going on, there's a lot of interest - and it's understandable," Marlow said. "It's a big project."

The legion, however, would still need to obtain a charter from the state Department of Education, among other things, in order to open the college on part of 165 acres it purchased from IBM Corp. for $33.4 million in 1996.

Building a college on the property, bordered by Westlake, Columbus and Stevens avenues, could also serve to trump the town in a six-year legal battle over the property's taxable status. If the legion built a school at the currently vacant site, the property probably would be tax-exempt, said town Supervisor Robert Meehan.

Founded in 1941, the Legion of Christ, also known as the Legionaries of Christ, is in 20 countries, with more than 480 priests and 2,500 seminarians. The order has been assailed by more liberal Catholic critics as cultlike, capable of brainwashing young priests-in-training. The order has denied that and other allegations, saying members are free to come and go as they please.

The legion's plans for Westchester University call for the first phase of construction, beginning in May 2006, to include two dormitories and one academic building. The university would start with a few dozen graduate students and would enroll its first freshman class in 2007 or 2008.

Over three decades, the legion would add several other academic buildings, an athletic center, a student union, a theater, a library, a chapel and 23 single-family homes for top faculty. Plans call for 250 faculty members and for about half of the eventual student body of 3,000 to live on campus.

After a presentation that included maps and renderings, the zoning board on Thursday unanimously voted to refer the application to the Planning Board. The move is regarded as a parliamentary step, town officials said.

The Planning Board is expected to declare itself lead agency in conducting an environmental review of the project at its next meeting, scheduled for July 21. That process, which will include several public hearings and extensive study of the plan and the property, could last as long as three years, Meehan said.

Still, several speakers attending Thursday's meeting took the opportunity to voice early concerns about the possible problems related to traffic, drainage and other issues the project could cause.

"I think everybody's overwhelming concern is the project is way too large for the town," said Chris Mooney, a resident of Greenwood Lane who attended the meeting.

The legion has not yet started its application to the state Department of Education for certification as a college, Marwell said. The order also recently announced plans for its first American university in Sacramento, Calif.

The process of certifying a new college in New York includes a comprehensive review of an organization's academic plans, finances and the proposed site, according to a document outlining the protocol for opening a college available on the state Education Department's Web site.

Currently, the legion pays $450,000 a year in taxes, Meehan said. The legion sued the town in 1997, after the town refused to grant its application for a tax exemption on the property, which the order maintained was used as a place of worship.

At issue in the case - currently before the state's highest court, the Court of Appeals, after the town won two earlier decisions - is whether a rosary path, a grotto and Stations of the Cross on the grounds at Westlake and Stevens avenues constitute a place of worship that would earn the site tax-free status.

Meehan said that if the legion proves to be earnest about its plans to build a college, there is little doubt the property would be tax-free. The town assessor would make a decision about the property's tax status by September, he said.

Marwell declined to discuss the tax dispute or how the plans to build a college would affect it.

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