Warwick — The new Jehovah's Witnesses World Headquarters located in Sterling Forest will be completed in August, thanks to the help of more than 25,000 volunteers from across the country who contributed to its construction.
Some of the volunteers have stayed at the site since ground breaking three years ago, such as spokesperson for Jehovah's Witnesses, Richard Devine, and his wife, while others have come for a week or a three-day weekend. With more than 1.2 million Jehovah's Witnesses in the United States, many of which own construction businesses or work in construction, there is a high skill level working on the project.
“As Jehovah's Witnesses,” Devine said, “we feel it's a real privilege to help with the building of the headquarters.”
The entire campus, which borders Sterling Forest Lake (Blue Lake), consists of eight buildings, including four residence buildings and a large office building, where the 800 to 850 Witnesses will live and work. There are also two maintenance buildings and a parking garage.
Those that will be living at the 1.6 million square-foot world headquarters will start moving in this September, with the entire Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society slowly moving out of Brooklyn, the organization's location since 1909. Residents all have taken a vow to be members of a religious order, according to Devine, and as they accomplish their ministerial work in connection with the headquarters, the order in turn provides housing, meals, health care, and a small allowance each month to cover incidental expenses, like toothpaste and socks.
And as far as children, Devine said that even though Jehovah's Witnesses in general are very family-oriented, the world headquarters staff is made up of only single or married adults. If any couples decide to have children, they would leave and settle down to a more traditional home life elsewhere. There is no stigma attached to deciding to have children and no longer living at the headquarters, he said, and it is considered to be a personal decision.
“It's a way of life that's different than most,” Devine said, “but it is very rewarding.”
One of the goals for the world headquarters campus was to make it efficient, both for workers getting around and energy efficiency. The first was accomplished through connecting the buildings with covered walkways, some of which are above ground while others are below. Devine said this helps workers easily get around the campus, especially elderly residents in the winter.
Being an energy efficient campus was created in a number of ways, one of which was through storm water control.
“We're not allowed to release storm water at any faster rate than it was in it's natural setting,” Devine said, “so we've incorporated things like this permeable paving ... and there's a couple feet of gravel below this so as the rain comes, it will just immediately go back into groundwater and won't runoff into the streams.”
There is also a large amount of underground water storage. Around the lake, there is a double row of black silt fencing, which keeps mud and dirt from flowing into the lake, and keeps the rattlesnakes out.
As far as the landscaping around the campus, Devine said they were not allowed to use any plants that are not native to Sterling Forest. And one of the most “green” additions to the headquarters is the installation of a growing medium on all of the flat roofs, containing little succulents and other similar plants.
“The whole idea is when it rains, the roof holds the moisture up here and then the plants can aspirate it over time,” Devine said. “By and large, we like to hold in as much water as we can and then that avoids having to discharge it into the streams or into our underground storage.”
There's also a geothermal field on site. Using about 125 wells, each 500 feet deep, in the wintertime, the system pulls heat from the ground used to heat the buildings and make hot water, and in the summertime, heat is put into the ground. With just one plant providing heating and air conditioning to all eight buildings, it is more energy efficient and requires less personnel.
With all of this green technology installed, according to the headquarters' engineers, the site will most likely receive four green globes, the highest rating given by the Green Building Initiative, an organization similar to LEED. Aspects like the use of recycled materials, construction practices, the use of green roofs, landscaping and storm water retention are all taken into account.
The main features that drew the Watch Tower Society to the Warwick property were its size and location, according to Devine. The property is 253 acres but only between 40 and 50 acres were used to build.
It's not too far from the city, so there's easy access for intrastate and international visitors. It's also in a scenic location near a lake, creating an aspect of privacy, Devine said, with shopping for the residents still close by.
Traffic to and from the site will be minimal, since residents work on site, except for visitors, which Devine said they expect to have quite a few.
Another important component is that there's a lot of local congregations of Jehovah's Witnesses in Northern New Jersey and Southern New York.
“All of our staff support local congregations of Jehovah's Witnesses,” Devine said. “So they'll travel quite a distance actually to worship with our neighbors. I go to a congregation up here in Monroe. But right here is kind of an ideal location because you have Northern Jersey with all the suburbs and we have many congregations nearby, so it just works out really well.”
With the group beginning to move out of Brooklyn, the Jehovah's Witnesses sold their longest-held building in Brooklyn, 124 Columbia Heights, with its iconic tower atop the roof, for $105 million in April, according to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. And according to the New York Post, the 733,000-square-foot world headquarters at 25-30 Columbia Heights and the 1.1-million square-foot as-of-right development site at 85 Jay St. were sold for $700 million.
These were among the 16 properties the organization owned in Brooklyn, which will all eventually be sold. The Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society also has a location in the Ulster County hamlet of Wallkill, where many of their printing services are located. This large complex includes residence buildings as well.
Even though the Watch Tower Society is a tax-exempt organization, Devine said, “We try to be good neighbors.”
And the response from the community has been positive, Devine said.
“I think everybody was wondering who are these people and how can you build something like this using volunteers,” Devine said. “And I think everyone, including the building department, was skeptical. But we've won them over and the quality of the work, I feel, is very, very high.”
According to Warwick Town Supervisor Michael Sweeton, the group has been exceptional throughout the whole planning and building process.
“They did everything the planning board asked them to do, they have been exemplary really in their construction activities,” Sweeton said. “We've had a monitor on site pretty much the entire time and our building inspector also visits a couple times a week. And everything that we've ever asked or wanted, they've done.”
The Witnesses have also helped with certain public facilities in town. When Warwick needed some material to build one of last sports fields out at Union Corners Park, Sweeton said he contacted the Watch Tower Society.
The group responded by providing all of the material the town needed as well as hydroseeding the soil, which allowed the grass to come in very nicely and much more quickly than had the town done the work - all at no cost to taxpayers.
Devine said that the group also has built a press box at the Little League field near the headquarters.
There are also basketball courts and picnic pavilions being built on the property because part of the group's agreement with the town was to have on site recreation, helping to avoid overloading the town's' parks with additional residents.
Currently, the Watch Tower Society is working with a Greenwood Lake Boy Scout Troop to refurbish the east shore of Greenwood Lake, offering their assistance in terms of material and volunteer trade help.
As far as impact on the town economically, Sweeton said that because the site itself was tax-exempt already, tax-wise, the headquarters won't have a huge impact on the town.
The Watch Tower Society also is providing some on site medical services and have made arrangements with the Greenwood Lake Fire District; it is also working with the Tuxedo Fire District.
If any of the Headquarters residents decide to move off site to have children, they then would pay taxes and their children would likely go to the Tuxedo school district.
“The town has been great to deal with,” Devine said. “They've been very open and honest with us, we've tried to be open and honest with them, and I think we've got a great relationship.”
As soon as the facility is completely done and the bible museum, which will be part of the headquarters, is finished, Devine said they will begin giving free tours to visitors, probably next spring. The bible museum will feature a first edition King James Bible printed in 1611.
“We look forward to inviting the whole community to come,” Devine said, “and probably have a big invitation campaign that will welcome everybody.”
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