Letter to Town Assessor:  Tax exemption for Legionaries should have become invalid years ago

Monday, March 24, 2014
by Sharon Greene

Dear Mr. Platz,

It has come to my attention that the tax-exempt status of the property at 773 Armonk Road is being formally questioned.  As I have mentioned to various governmental boards over the years—for close to a decade now—this property has not been in use.  I, and several other neighbors, are in the position of easily observing lights in the buildings when they are lit, as well as traffic, if and when it occurs, along their access drive.

I have reported this state numerous times to the zoning board, and past planning boards, when the Legionary application was before the ZBA, however nobody said that the assessor should be informed.  I do not know if the assessor was informed by any board members at the time, but apparently nothing was done to investigate and get the property back on the tax rolls.

I’m sure that in excess of several hundred thousand dollars in property and school taxes [* For amounts, see Editor’s Note, below] have been avoided over this time period when the property should have been subject to taxes due to non-usage. I hope that with the current inquiry, this will be corrected, as both New Castle and the Bedford Central School District could greatly use these moneys that should have been paid, according to all that I have read on this topic.

The town knows that the Legionaries had this property up for sale since 2011, and has been in contract since 2012.  The ZBA and almost certainly the Planning Board was made aware, repeatedly, of the non-usage of the property about 10 years ago.  I would like to understand further why we ‘ordinary’ residents must pay our taxes, yet nothing was done (to my knowledge) to pursue the possibility of collecting taxes on this property.  If something other than informing the governmental boards should have been done, I would have thought these boards or their counsel would have said so in response to my repeated statements, yet I was told nothing.

The NYS tax law says that for the exemption, the property must be in use for the religious purposes for which they are receiving the exemption.  Please see:

http://www.tax.ny.gov/pubs_and_bulls/orpts/legal_opinions/v4/22.htm

It explicitly states that vacant property, not vacant because of impending construction or approval of such construction, is taxable:

“Thus, the exemption of vacant (or open) land is conditioned on the construction of buildings or improvements now in progress or those in good faith contemplated to be in progress within a reasonable time. The exemption also applies in those cases where vacant land is willed to a charitable organization with conditions limiting the purposes for which the realty may be used. If the vacant land does not fall into either category of section 421, subdivision 3, the property is taxable, unless the land is in actual, exclusive use by the charitable organization for purposes which are enumerated in section 421, subdivision 1, of the Real Property Tax Law (see, 1 Op.Counsel SBEA No. 16 and 2 Op.Counsel SBEA No. 81).”

In fact, even on the rare occasions in the late ‘90s or early ‘2000s’ when the Legionaries used the site for retreats, they had advertised ‘date nights’ and ‘movie nights’ (for a fee) - neither of which sound much like religious activities.  This information was also brought to the ZBA’s attention at the time.

In 2008 the Legionaries withdrew their SEQRA application, so there was clearly no intention of imminent development.

I hope this situation will be rectified.  Also, just as ordinary residents who do not pay their taxes must pay back taxes, I suggest you look into the possibility of recouping the taxes that should have been collected during this time period.

I would appreciate acknowledgment of this note, and information as to how I can follow up on the outcome of this issue.

Thank you.

Sharon Greene
Resident of New Castle
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* Editor’s Note:  The Legionaries property currently pays $2,500 per year in taxes.  Without the tax exemption, the owners would be paying around $27,000 to New Castle, $35,000 to the County and $134,000 to Bedford Central School District each year.  Bedford’s tax assessor has no jurisdiction over the property, since it is located within New Castle.  The Town of New Castle would collect the school taxes and pass them on to Bedford CSD.

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