Warwick - Whether it is shoveling snow off the Brooklyn Heights Promenade or putting cows out for the tourists, the Watchtower Bible & Tract Society is, by most accounts, a good neighbor.
Also known as Jehovah's Witnesses, Watchtower is actively locating new complexes closer to its printery in the Ulster County hamlet of Wallkill and, if all goes according to plan, the religious order will relocate its world headquarters to the old International Nickel Company site off Long Meadow Road in Warwick.
When it fits their way of doing something they will contribute to public benefit, said Judy Stanton, executive director of Brooklyn Heights Association (BHA), citing a playground that Watchtower agreed to build for New York City's Housing Authority.
"BHA appreciates their work," said Stanton.
And despite its tax-exempt status, the group has a positive impact on Brooklyn Heights, Stanton added.
In the Ulster County town of Shawangunk, where the hamlet of Wallkill is located, the Watchtower helped the town demolish and rebuild its town hall.
"They do a lot for the town," said Town Supervisor John Valk Jr. "They even built wheelchair ramps for the temporary trailers."
Watchtower purchased 670 acres in the Putnam County town of Patterson in 1984.
"I asked them to put their cows out on Friday night for the tourists," said Patterson Town Supervisor Michael Griffin. "You tell them what you want and what they come back with is top-notch."
Griffin described the Witnesses as model citizens. Their facility, he said, is a show piece for the town and they pay more than the old owner did under his agricultural exemption.
Still, the Patterson supervisor added, "I wish they paid taxes or more taxes."
Without its tax-exemption, Watchtower would be Shawangunk's largest property taxpayer, said Valk, who accepts it, saying, "There is nothing I can change about tax exemptions at a town level."
But Valk noted that the Watchtower donates large amounts of manpower hours to the town and helped nearby Walden complete paving of three miles of rail trails when its grant money ran out.
Watchtower has made concessions with various towns in lieu of paying property taxes. For instance, its Patterson Inn remains on the tax rolls as does Valley Farms.
Griffin, the Patterson town supervisor, also asked the order to not canvass in town and, he said, the Witnesses have complied with that request 100 percent.
Compromise and adjustments
According to the Office of Real Property Services, nationally not-for-profits are being looked at more closely. The Town of Ramapo reversed its decision to not grant exemption for a 248-acre site acquired by the religious order in February 2009 after a 292-unit active senior citizen housing development went belly up.
Watchtower made a Community Benefit Agreement with Ramapo and will contribute $1.3 million over a five-year period, paying $300,000 upfront and $250,000 in each of the following four years, according to Ramapo Town Attorney Michael Klein. Watchtower is planning to reduce the development at its Ramapo site by 50 percent, said Ramapo Supervisor Christopher St. Lawrence.
"Any exemption will take a piece of the tax base away," said Joe Hesch, a spokesman for the state's Office of Real Property Services. "The issue of exemptions is always pretty hot."
If the Watchtower Bible & Tract Society proposal in Warwick goes through, it will provide "a nice opportunity to reduce our footprint in a more logical way," said Watchtower spokesperson Richard Devine.
Warwick Town Supervisor Michael Sweeton agreed. He said Watchtower officials have told him they plan to use all kinds of recycled materials with a vast amount of open space to remain.
The order plans to develop 10-11 percent of the property and leave the remainder in its natural state. Plans include placing all resident parking underground to minimize pavement and storm water runoff.
"We want to do it right," said Devine, of the Watchtower's Wallkill Bethel property in Ulster County. "Because of the tax issue we don't want to be a burden on taxpayers in the local area."
Klein, the Ramapo town attorney, added these final words: "The Witnesses are very reasonable to deal with and I certainly expect they will be good neighbors."
About the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society
The Jehovah's Witnesses moved their world headquarters from Allegheny, Pa., to Brooklyn in 1909. Members of the religious order serve voluntarily and in return receive a small stipend, housing and meals. If Watchtower relocates its head quarters, that would continue. Watchtower headquarters in Brooklyn currently contains its editorial staff and its governing body.
Most Watchtower buildings in Brooklyn are in the landmark district and have landmark status. The group has offered six properties on the market but with a slow down in the credit market it has scaled back advertising them. The real estate portfolio includes some choice historic landmarks like Brooklyn's Waldorf Astoria and the Hotel Bossert where the Brooklyn Dodgers celebrated their 1955 World Series Championship.
The City of New York has not expressed interest in purchasing any of the properties. Five of the group's properties are connected by underground tunnels to facilitate moving laundry, people, steam, air-conditioning, and electricity between and among buildings.
Watchtower world headquarters has more than 1,500 volunteers ranging in age from 19 to nearly 100, with an average age between 40 and 45. All Watchtower staff are U.S. residents and speak nearly 40 languages. Although the majority of volunteers are born in the United States, Watchtower has "quite an international flavor," said spokesperson Richard Devine from the Brooklyn Headquarter, with well over 100 branch offices around the world. Translation services are kept in the countries where the language is spoken. Worldwide Watchtower has several thousand translators.