Shawangunk -- This Ulster County town, with a ridge of quartz mountains rising 2,000 feet, is a mecca for rock climbers. In recent years, religious groups have also begun flocking to the mid-Hudson Valley municipality of 15,000 residents, putting down roots and scooping up tax breaks.
In 2015, the 29 Shawangunk properties with religious non-profit status were worth $148 million, up 85 percent since 1999.
“Our town is nearly 30 percent exempt,” said town Tax Assessor Curt Schoeberl. “In the last five or 10 years, the largest tax-exempt group’s growth is religious. These groups are growing faster than the taxable part of the tax rolls.”
“The only thing they don’t have on the property is an oil well," Schoeberl quipped.
Brimming with hundreds of millions of dollars in cash from the sale of its Brooklyn properties in recent years, the Jehovah's Witnesses, and their nonprofit arm, The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, is amassing property all over the Hudson Valley. Watchtower owns about 1,500 acres in Shawangunk, where the group maintains a printing press for its religious literature, a working farm and refrigeration and ready-mix concrete plants.
In the Orange County town of Warwick, Jehovah’s Witnesses are building a new headquarters, reportedly set to be 1.6 million square feet.
In Putnam County, Watchtower owns nearly 750 acres — nearly all of it tax-exempt. Spread out on both sides of Route 22 in Patterson, the property is home to a massive education center, several apartment buildings, a farm, dining hall and several other buildings.
In Shawangunk, Schoeberl said Watchtower gives back to its host community “in an unbelievable fashion.
"They almost single-handedly built two town parks with their manpower and equipment," he said. "I don’t think they’ve ever said no" to a request for help.
Schoeberl said several Buddhist groups have also joined other nonprofit organizations in making their home in Shawangunk in recent years, buying large tracts of land for several temples.
“We are a stone’s throw from New York City, where most of them are headquartered,” Schoeberl said. “We have cheap land in the sense that we’re not Westchester County, for example. This is where they want to be.”
Schoeberl said the spread of tax exempt properties follows the birth of new spiritual communities.
“If you go back to when the county was founded — how many religious groups were there when the pilgrims came here? One or two? Now we have a church of holy grasshopper,” Schoeberl said.
Coupled with three other nonprofits that moved to town in recent years, Schoebel noted that two them — Occupations Inc. and New Horizons Resources — together occupy land worth $1 million.
"For a small community, even this million-dollar hit is felt by the taxpayers," he said.
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