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December 09, 2016
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Sullivan tax-exempt initiative moves forward

Sullivan County officials plan to seek the support of the New York State Association of Counties (NYSAC) in attempting to amend the law that covers tax-exempt properties in the state.

At a meeting at the government center in Monticello on November 8, county treasurer Ira Cohen, who has done some preliminary work on a proposed amendment and who was seeking to establish a committee to finish the work, said a proposed amendment should be ready to be presented to the NYSAC legislative committee at the end of January or the beginning of February.

Cohen said that a recent case, called Ahavas Chaverim Gemilas Chesed, Inc. v. Town of Mamakating, which involved the former Camp Homowack, and which was decided at the appellate level on October 25, could have an impact on the county’s effort.

A camp began operating at the site in 2009, changing the use of the property from a hotel to a girls’ camp. The owners of the property said they were going to lease the camp to a religious corporation, and then would seek a tax exemption. The town denied the exemption, at least in part, because the camp had never sought the required special-use permit or variance to change the use from a hotel to a girls’ camp.

The court agreed to a degree and in the opinion wrote, “The actual use of property in contravention of local laws can be a valid basis for denying an application for a tax exemption.”

However, perhaps more significantly, the relevant law says that the tax-exempt property must be used “exclusively” for a religious purpose and, in this case, “Petitioner’s application provided no details as to the religious aspect of that camp or any other religious use of the property.” For those reasons, and others relating to health and building code violations, the court upheld the Mamakating assessor’s denial of tax-exempt status.

Ironically, it is the phrase “exclusive use” in NY Real Property Law 402-a that Sullivan officials will seek to buttress, because in the past the courts have interpreted the phrase broadly. Sam Yasgur, the county attorney, said, “The real problem with 402-a is that the legislature said ‘exclusive,’ then the courts said, ‘exclusive kind of means primary,’ and then they said ‘primary kind of means if they
have some connection.’ So they have watered down one word.”

Cohen added, “That’s the approach I’m taking in rewriting the law, is to concentrate on making it clear, what ‘exclusive use’ means and doesn’t mean.” Pushing the amendment into law may not be easy. Whether or not the county is successful in gaining support from NYSAC, the amendment will need to be approved by the senate and the assembly, and then signed by Governor Andrew Cuomo. Attempts to change the law in the past have been blocked by the assembly.