Mount Pleasant -- In a major defeat for Town Hall, the state's highest court yesterday ruled that the operation of a Roman Catholic seminary at a former IBM training center does not violate the town's zoning code.
The ruling allows the Legion of Christ to continue training men for the priesthood on its 97-acre campus off Columbus Avenue, permitting the property tax-exempt status. The site produced $1.8 million in real estate taxes this year, according to Mount Pleasant Supervisor Robert Meehan.
The decision by the Court of Appeals found that the Legion's operation was, for zoning purposes, essentially the same as IBM's use of the facility to train its employees.
"We are very pleased that the court has affirmed the argument that we made all along," said Jay Dunlap, a spokesman for the Legion of Christ, a conservative organization within the church, which has operated the seminary on the site since early 1997.
The court ruling reversed much of a state appellate division ruling over the summer that found the Legion of Christ facility was a college, which the court maintained was not permitted on land zoned for office corporate education.
"This is a pretty devastating case to us," said Meehan, who added that the town, Mount Pleasant school district and Westchester County also would need to refund past taxes to the Legion of Christ, in addition to losing $1.8 million in revenue annually.
"The refunds will run well into the millions," Meehan said.
Mount Pleasant is exploring a possible appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, if its attorneys can find grounds to challenge the state high court ruling, Meehan said.
Hardest hit would be the school district, which receives nearly $1.3 million in property taxes, Meehan said. The school district saw voters last month turn down a $45 million budget for the coming school year, a spending plan that carried an 8 percent property-tax increase. The court ruling reduces district revenue, putting more pressure for a tax increase or deeper cuts in spending.
Legion spokesman Dunlap said the law provides churches, schools and other nonprofit entities with tax exemptions because they are viewed as beneficial to the larger society.
"Obviously those are all important concerns for the town, but the court ruling is clear," Dunlap said. "Then he has issues with the law and the court system that interpreted the law, not with us."
The court noted that the Legion's tax-exempt status, though important to the town, "is not a legitimate purpose of zoning."
Meehan said the land had been planned and zoned to attract corporate development that would help provide tax revenue for the municipality, a concern the court ruling did not consider.
"That is one of the purposes of zoning, to provide a tax base for municipalities so they can provide services for their citizens," Meehan said. "If that is not a legitimate purpose, I think that is a dangerous precedent."
In issuing the unanimous decision, the court did not consider the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, a law designed to prevent religious facilities from being discriminated against.
The court ruling affects only the Legion's training site for men studying to become priests and not an adjoining 168-acre property, also purchased from IBM in December 1996, where the organization wants to establish Westchester University.
That property also would receive tax-exempt status if the university were built, Meehan said. The review process for that proposal is just beginning: The Legion recently submitted its draft environmental impact statement that reviews traffic and other effects the university would have in the area. The Legion made news last month when the Vatican announced that the founder of the order, the Rev. Marcial Maciel, 86, would stop celebrating Mass publicly as a result of its investigations into allegations that he molested seminarians decades ago.