Suffern tenants must move after Jehovah's Witnesses group buys building

The Journal News, New York/June 13, 2013

Suffren - The nonprofit organization behind the Jehovah's Witnesses has purchased an apartment complex in the village with plans to use it as temporary housing for members while they work to build a massive new headquarters in nearby Warwick, Orange County.

The sale of the 48-unit Suffern Commons at 10-12 Chestnut St. closed last week, a spokesman for the Watchtower Society told The Journal News.

The deal forces families in the three-story building to quickly find alternative housing and could mean a loss to the village of $56,000 in annual property taxes if the new owner secures a religious tax exemption — which it is interested in, spokesman Richard Devine said.

Before the sale was confirmed, tenants spent the past few weeks anxiously trying to figure out why some of them received notices to vacate by June 30. Others who had signed one-year leases or didn't know when their leases were up, like Terri Fosina-Friedman, also have prepared to move.

But the painful process and lack of information from their landlord and the new owner has angered many residents, Fosina-Friedman said.

"I'm just happy that I got it settled and I got another place to live and my son can stay in the school district," she said.

The Watchtower Society, the Brooklyn-based organization that establishes doctrine for millions of Jehovah's Witnesses around the world, intends to honor tenants' existing leases at Suffern Commons, Devine said. He indicated that the society would consider an extension of the June 30 move-out deadline.

"We're going to work with the tenants," he said. "We understand that they all have different circumstances so we want to work with them to see what the best course of action is for them and for us.

"We certainly are not going to put anyone out onto the street," he added. "We don't want to create undue hardships for people or disrupt people's lives."

By law, nonprofit religious organizations may own property to house only members of their faith as long as there isn't a commercial use.

Devine declined to disclose the sale price. As of Wednesday, no new deed had been filed at the Rockland County Clerk's Office. The building's previous owner, Real Estate Management Group of Englewood, N.J., did not return a message seeking comment.

The village will ask the society to give all tenants six months, until Dec. 30, to find new homes, Mayor Dagan Lacorte said.

Tenants who want legal assistance are encouraged to call the Rockland Legal Aid Society at 845-634-3627 or 800-454-3627.

The Watchtower Society is awaiting final site plan approval in Warwick so the construction of its new worldwide headquarters can get underway. It chose Suffern as one of several nearby locations to house workers who will commute to Warwick until new residences are built there, Devine said.

The four-year construction project calls for building 500 residential units on a 253-acre site that was once a metal processing plant, Devine said. The campus will serve as the new living and working headquarters for the order's governing body when it relocates from Brooklyn.

The Watchtower Society runs a similar educational center in Patterson, in Putnam County, and a campus and printing facility in Wallkill, N.Y., where 10,000 Bibles are printed daily.

Jehovah's Witnesses, whose followers are perhaps most recognizable for spreading the teachings of the Bible door-to-door, counts 8 million active members worldwide, including more than 1.2 million in the United States.

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