Jehovah's Witnesses buy Fishkill apartments

Pougheepsie Journal, New York/December 23, 2014

By Craig Wolf

Jehovah's Witnesses now owns a major apartment complex in the Town of Fishkill.

Some tenants say they've been told their leases will not be renewed, but it is unclear what the group plans for the property or if the land might become tax exempt.

The sale of the 250-unit Rivercrest Luxury Apartments closed Dec. 3, the deed on file at the Dutchess County Clerk's Office shows. While sale price is not stated, the transfer tax indicates a transaction for $57 million.

It's not clear what the religious group plans, but research by the Poughkeepsie Journal shows other real estate deals and a need for housing of members in connection with the current construction of a new world headquarters in Warwick, Orange County.

Rivercrest is a modern development west of Route 9D just north of Beacon and was a project of AVR Realty, which also developed other housing and commercial spaces in that area as well as projects in eight states.

The sale deed is between Rivercrest Development LLC, based in Yonkers, and Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc. as the buyer. Watchtower is better known as Jehovah's Witnesses.

The Jehovah's Witnesses headquarters did not have a comment to offer, but said the inquiry would be referred to directors for consideration. Tom Perna, development manager for AVR Realty, was away, according to a person at his office. Staff at the rental office at Rivercrest declined to comment in detail but did confirm the complex had been sold and that they were not renewing leases.

Tenants believe the international religious organization plans to have their own people move into units that are emptying at Rivercrest.

Jehovah's Witnesses bought a vacant parcel in the Orange County Town of Warwick in 2009 and began construction of a new world headquarters in July 2013, having sold a major property complex in Brooklyn. Completion in Warwick is targeted for 2017, according to the Witnesses' website.

Jeff Cohen, who has lived at the Rivercrest community for about seven years, said he is moving out to another rental complex.

"I'm getting out because they're not renewing anybody's leases," he said, citing information he learned from the rental staff. Leases expire at various times through the year. He said he was pleased that management let him out of his lease, which runs through June, because he expects that many residents will be flooding the rental realty market.

He said neighbors who have leases expiring this month have to work fast to find new homes. "I think it's pretty upsetting that at this time of year, families are told, we have to vacate the premises," he said.

Donald Beverly, a tenant for about a year and a half, said he learned leases are not being renewed. " I was looking forward to living in my beautiful place," he said. The moves will be particularly hard on families who have children in school, he said. Rivercrest is in the Beacon City School District.

Purchase of property by a religious organization raises the possibility of property tax exemption. According to Jeff Gloak, a spokesman for the state Department of Taxation and Finance, any owner seeking exemption must file for it with the local assessor's office by a state deadline each March 1.

A section of state law allows religious or other specified nonprofit groups to claim exemption for a property but must meet two tests, he said. One is that the owner organization itself must qualify; the other is that the property must be used exclusively for the exempt purposes.

"The key word there is 'exclusive,'<TH>" Gloak said. He declined to speculate on what Watchtower might do.

Many of the tenants have leases that extend into 2015. Their use of the apartments is unrelated to the religious purposes of Watchtower, which has not said what its plans are for the property. Fishkill town Supervisor Robert LaColla, reached Tuesday, said he had the flu and did not offer any comment.

Kurt Buck, a town board member, said he'd heard of the deal but did not know what effect it would have. "I don't know how it's going to impact the Town of Fishkill taxes but that's all going to come eventually. At this time, it's too early to tell."

Watchtower bought a motel in the Town of Newburgh on March 21, the former Hampton Inn on Route 300, according to Orange County property records. The society paid $21.6 million. Current tax status was not clear from the records.

In Rockland County, Watchtower bought a 48-unit apartment complex, Suffern Commons, in Suffern in June 2013, the Journal News reported. The paper said spokesmen for the Jehovah's Witnesses said that they planned to use it as temporary housing for members while they work to build the new headquarters in Warwick.

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