Jehovah's Witnesses Build Center of Dairy Farm

The New York Times/April 7, 1991
By Harold Faber

PATTERSON, N.Y. - A huge religious complex is being built on a former dairy farm here as part of the world headquarters of the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, better known as the Jehovah's Witnesses.

When completed, the 27-building campus, called the Patterson Farm, will be the major educational institution for the church's missionaries and staff, equipped to teach, house and feed 1,600 people at a time.

Sitting like a city on a hill overlooking Route 22, here in northeastern Putnam County, the complex is a beehive of construction activity, with all the work being done by volunteers who are members of the church.

"We feel it is part of our service to God," and John Roth, Jr., a contractor from Albany, Ga., interrupting his carpentry work on frames for one building.

'Working to Serve God'

Another volunteer, Matt Higgs, a former golf course landscaper, came from Kansas City, Mo., to lay carpets. "I am working to serve God," he said.

They were among 400 men and women working on the project recently. All - engineers, architects, draftsmen, carpenters, concrete workers, electricians, plumbers and laborers - are church members who volunteer to work from weeks to years. They receive no pay, but get a monthly stipend for incidental expenses.

When they are finished, sometime in 1996, they will have built 6 apartment houses 2 to 5 stories high with 624 apartments, a 450-car garage, a 144-room hotel, a huge kitchen and dining room to serve 1,600 people at one sitting, an office building, a classroom building and several service buildings.

Church officials said the cost of construction would be about $50 million, including the cost of supporting the workers but not the value of their free labor. One church officials' estimate, based on the square footage of the buildings, valued the new complex when completed at about $130 million.

Local residents say they are pleased with the improvements of the Patterson property, but some expressed concern about the loss of tax revenue from the religious organization, which is exempt from property taxes.

Seen as Beautiful Hardship

"No one who goes by doesn't comment on what a beautiful facility it is," said Lawrence Lawlor, supervisor of the Town of Patterson. "They have greatly improved the property but a sizable amount of land has been taken off the tax rolls and the average taxpayer will have to make it up. It creates a hardship for others."

Lon Schilling, general manager of farm operations for the church, said, "The growth of our educational activities in Brooklyn has required this expansion." With the doubling of church members around the world to four million in the last 25 years and a gain of 295,000 members to a total of 900,000 in the United States in the last 10 years, he said the church had outgrown its current headquarters, a complex of buildings in Brooklyn Heights.

The church also has a subsidiary farm in Wallkill,, N.Y., across the Hudson River, for its computers and printing plants for its two magazines, "The Watchtower" and "Awake!"

"We are a Bible-oriented oriented organization," Mr. Schilling said, noting that it trains missionaries to bring word of the Bible and of God's Kingdom all over the world. "We train all our members to be teachers of the Bible."

Both the Wallkill and the Patterson properties are active farms, growing crops to feed the workers there and in Brooklyn. Despite the surge in building in Patterson, almost half of the new property is used to provide beef for the church's workers.

Robert Bondi, the Putnam County Executive, said he was pleased that some of the land was being preserved for agriculture. "We like to see Patterson retain its rural character," he said.

But Patterson is changing, especially along Route 22, which is called "the golden mile" by some local residents because of commercial development. From Patterson south to Brewster, most of Route 22 is a major shopping strip, with numerous malls, gasoline stations, restaurants and stores.

The Jehovah's Witnesses bought one of the last remaining farms on Route 22, a tract of about 684 acres in 1984 for $2.1 million. The present value of the land, listed on the tax rolls in the town hall, is about $4.9 million.

William Carlin, the county Finance Commissioner, said the town, county and school districts are losing about $80,000 a year because the property, except for the hotel, has been declared tax-exempt.

By agreement with local officials, the church will pay taxes on the hotel, called the Patterson Inn, which will be open only to visiting church members.

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