Watchtower Farms plans millions in expansion

Times Herald-Record, New York/November 29, 2007

Town of Shawangunk - Watchtower Farms wants to add millions of dollars worth of living, parking and support space to its massive complex on Red Mills Road.

The Jehovah's Witness organization has filed preliminary paperwork with the town of Shawangunk Planning Board. The town wants to be the lead agency on the environmental review of the proposal. The county Planning Board is review that designation at its meeting next week.

Watchtower Farms wants to add 300 living units, a 400-space parking garage and a three-story building for recreation and equipment. It also wants to add to the existing dining room, laundry and dry cleaning facilities, according to the documents.

The expansion, if approved, will not take any of the land out of current agricultural use or take land off the existing tax roll, according to Troy Snyder. He is part of the management team at the farm. This expansion would not impact the school district.

"Some of the residence housing was built in the 60's and 70's, much of it in dormitory style. We are trying to upgrade the living quarters. It's a quality of life issue," he said. The parking and support services go along with that work.

The work would begin next year or perhaps even later. "We haven't gotten to that stage at this point," he said. Snyder did not have an cost estimate yet.

The farm is exempt from property taxes, according to town officials. If the property was taxed, the bill would be about $2 million.

On the other hand, "You can't get better neighbors," said Shawangunk Assessor Curt Schoeberl. Watchtower has helped the town build a park and rail trail. When winds downed trees all over town, Watchtower sprung into action with its equipment and people to help, Schoeberl said.

Such religious and other groups are under heightened scrutiny from town officials. A recent court ruling allows governments to reject the property tax exemptions in some cases. Assessors will be taking another look at some organizations as a result, Schoeberl said.

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