Jehovah's Witnesses eye buying site for church complex

Poughkeepsie Journal/February 16, 2015

By Craig Wolf

Fishkill – The Jehovah's Witnesses church envisions a working church complex adjacent to the apartment development that the organization recently bought in the Town of Fishkill, the town supervisor says. The move could result in hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost tax revenue for the town and the Beacon City School District.

The potential exists for the group to claim a religious exemption from property taxes on both, though it would be at least a year before either claim would be likely to come up.

Supervisor Bob LaColla did not know whether the church had yet succeeded in negotiations to buy the adjacent industrial property. LaColla estimated that if both parcels were eventually deemed eligible for tax exemption, it could cost the town $100,000 a year in lost revenue and cost the Beacon school district about $800,000 a year.

LaColla said officials from the church group laid out a scenario for what they plan to do in the town. As reported in the Poughkeepsie Journal Dec. 23, the Watchtower bought the 250-unit Rivercrest Luxury Apartments for $57 million, according to deed records at the Dutchess County Clerk's Office.

Beyond that, LaColla said the Witnesses spoke of erecting an assembly hall, a video production studio and three office buildings on land owned by Chelsea Waterfront Development LLC land. It covers more than 57 acres in two parcels overlooking the Hudson River.

The apartment sale was from Rivercrest Development LLC, based in Yonkers, to Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc. Watchtower is better known as Jehovah's Witnesses.

LaColla said the Witnesses are also negotiating for the industrial site just north of the Rivercrest Apartments, one formerly known as Circle M, after a wood-treating company that operated there. It is currently shown in property records as owned by Chelsea Waterfront Development LLC, an entity managed by the same person, Allan V. Rose, who managed Rivercrest Development.

There was no reply Monday from Rose's office in Yonkers. A secretary for Jehovah's Witnesses said the inquiry would be passed along to higher-ups, but no reply was received.

Beacon schools were closed Monday and officials did not reply to inquiries.

An $800,000 loss would be about 1.2 percent of the current Beacon school budget, or about 2.3 percent of its tax levy.

One Rivercrest resident, Don Beverley, who is a retired school administrator from Putnam County, said such a hit to the tax base would be significant. "The district needs to plan for this, too, if they are going to lose all that taxes," he said.

For himself, he's looking around. But high-end complexes like Rivercrest are few in the region, he said. He's even considering moving out of state.

"I'm a lifelong New Yorker. It's hard to think that I'll have Pennsylvania plates on my car," Beverley said.

As working church properties used for religious purposes, the proposed complex would presumably be eligible under state laws for exemption from property tax, LaColla said. Properties used for religious purposes generally are exempt.

LaColla had some doubt about whether the apartment complex could qualify for the tax break. "As a housing facility, I don't know that they can reach that," he said.

Applications for exemption are due by March 1, but since most of the apartments are still rented commercially, Watchtower would apparently not be able to make the claim, LaColla said. "They couldn't say that the housing is just for those who are going to be working there," he said.

However, tenants of the complex who have learned that Watchtower is not renewing leases that have come up say the plan is to move Jehovah's Witnesses into the units as they are emptied. And, in the Rockland County Village of Suffern, Watchtower bought an apartment building and eventually was successful in taking it off the tax rolls.

The Rivercrest complex, among the most pricey and luxurious rental sites in southern Dutchess, was the upper end of complexes in the town, LaColla said. The assessor listed its full market value at $33 million.

The Chelsea Waterfront old industrial site is valued at $1 million. It is subject to a permanent easement favoring the state Department of Environmental Conservation, which oversees contamination mitigation work at the site. LaColla said some of that work had already been done.

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