Group’s tax refund request shot down

The Appeal-Democrat, California/March 26, 2014

For the second time in 2 1⁄2 years, Yuba County has rejected a property tax refund request from the Fellowship of Friends.

County supervisors voted 3-1 Tuesday to deny the group's request for refunds for each of the past four years and part of 2009-10. The group claims it is entitled to religious and welfare exemptions.

The Fellowship's claim does not specify an amount. But based on estimates of $30,000 a year for real property and $100,000 a year on personal property, the refund would total about $520,000, said Assessor Bruce Stottlemeyer.

Supervisors John Nicoletti, Roger Abe and Hal Stocker voted to deny the refund, saying there was no reason to reverse past county assessor rulings. Supervisor Andy Vasquez voted in opposition, saying the group merits an exemption. Supervisor Mary Jane Griego was absent.

Vasquez, after a long discussion of the pros and cons involving Fellowship and Yuba County lawyers, noted the matter will end up in court.

"I don't know why we are continuing this," he said of the discussion.

The Fellowship has described itself as followers of Mystical Fourth-Way Christianity based upon the teachings of G.I. Gurdjieff. It was founded by Robert Burton in the 1970s and is based at a 1,250-acre site in Oregon House.

A similar 2011 refund request sought more than $572,000 for taxes paid from 2006-09. Then-Assessor David Brown rejected it on grounds the Fellowship property wasn't exclusively used for an exempted purpose, such as for religious grounds.

Stottlemeyer said the Fellowship asked him to review Brown's decision. But that process was halted when it was found the Fellowship doesn't have a conditional use permit for a religious institution, which Stottlemeyer said is required to claim an exemption.

"The property has to be permitted for its use," Stottlemeyer told the board. "This notion that just because they are a church they are entitled to an exemption doesn't hold water."

Fellowship attorney Jan Fleener told the board the Fellowship is recognized by the Internal Revenue Service as a tax exempt church. She also said the assessor is legally precluded from denying an exemption based on use permit grounds.

"It has been quite puzzling to the Fellowship that it has been denied," she said.

Fleener said the refund request is only related to the use of a building known as the Galleria for religious worship. She noted a use permit was granted for that building to be used as a museum in early 1990s, but that never happened and the permit expired after 18 months.

However, County Counsel Angil Morris-Jones told the board the use permit granted was not for a temporary use and is still intact.

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