Ramapo denies tax exemption for Jehovah's Witnesses

Lo Hud, New York's Lower Hudson/May 3, 2009

Ramapo - A property-tax exemption has been denied for 248 acres owned by the Jehovah's Witnesses.

That does not mean an exemption will never be granted. The Watchtower Tract and Bible Society can appeal the decision, and can also seek a zoning change to permit the religious uses it plans for the property.

Until then, it will be responsible for municipal tax bills, Supervisor Christopher St. Lawrence said.

He said that even if an exemption was granted, he expected the Watchtower Tract and Bible Society to make some payments to the town.

"I want to discuss with them directly what contributions they can make to the town in lieu of taxes," St. Lawrence said.

The property, off Sterling Mine Road near Sloatsburg, was subdivided for an active-senior development and was zoned as such.

"I denied the exemption because the property that the Watchtower purchased is 292 building lots, and the town approved building homes on those lots," assessor Scott Shedler said.

Watchtower bought the property in February for $11.5 million from Lorterdan Properties at Ramapo, which abandoned its plans for the residential development.

Lorterdan paid property taxes of about $400,000 last year, and Watchtower sought a 100 percent exemption on Feb. 27.

Shedler estimated that Watchtower would face town, county and school tax bills totaling about $350,000 for 2009-10.

The property is assessed at $1.5 million.

Richard Devine, a spokesman at Watchtower's headquarters in Brooklyn, said its officials had not been notified of Ramapo's decision.

"It was news to us," Devine said. "We haven't yet received word from the town on it, so we're not in a position to comment on it."

Shedler said he sent a letter Friday to the society about his decision.

Watchtower plans to move many of its administrative offices to Ramapo from Brooklyn, where it has overseen its worldwide operations for 100 years.

In place of the 292 building lots, Ramapo records show that Watchtower's plans include an office and worship building, a service building with a central kitchen, dining room, laundry, storage and infirmary.

Residential buildings for about 850 people, all 18 or older, would also be constructed.

No children are to live there.

Watchtower can appeal Shedler's decision with the town's Board of Assessment Review up to May 26.

Representatives of the society can either appear before the board on May 26 or file a written grievance.

The town annually averages 1,200 grievances of assessments.

Watchtower also needs to have the Town Board change the zoning to match the society's plans.

"They need to petition for a zoning law amendment to permit convents and monasteries," said Alan Berman, first deputy town attorney.

A designation for "convents and monasteries" refers to Watchtower's plans for "integrated living, working and worshiping arrangements," as outlined in its preliminary plans.

The property is now zoned RSH, or residential specialized housing.

Permitted uses include active-adult residential development, housing for people with disabilities, nursing homes and assisted-living facilities.

Because zoning changes are legislative actions, Watchtower needs to first petition the Town Board.

The matter would then be referred to the Planning Board for its recommendations, then returned to the Town Board for a public hearing and decision.

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