On January 18, 2018, the Appellate Division, Second Department, upheld a decision denying an application for a religious real property tax exemption on the grounds that the property owner’s use of the main structure as a dormitory and living quarters for 20 students ran contrary to the one family dwelling Certificate of Occupancy issued for the premises and thus violated the Town of Ramapo’s zoning laws. See, Congregation Ateres Yisroel v Town of Ramapo, 2014-09194.
In Congregation Ateres Yisroel, plaintiff claimed and received a religious real property tax exemption for the years 2008-2011. In 2012, plaintiff sought to renew its religious tax exemption by submitting a renewal application stating that no changes had been made to the property’s ownership or use from 2011 to 2012. The Town denied the request on the grounds that plaintiff erected two trailers on the premises without seeking permits or approvals and that plaintiff used the main structure to house 20 students in dormitory style living quarters all in contravention to a 1954 Certificate of Occupancy stating the premises is certified as a “one family dwelling.”
Without any discussion or analysis of whether the students being housed at the property were engaged in conduct of a religious nature, the Second Department, agreed with the trial court that use of the premises for dormitory style living contravenes the “one family dwelling” Certificate of Occupancy and as a result, denial of the religious real property tax exemption was upheld.
Now, this decision is not particularly shocking or even interesting for that matter. However, this decision caught my attention because not long ago, we published a blog post entitled “Court Supports an Expansive View of What Constitutes a Religious Use.” In that post, the Third Department reinstated a decision of the City of Albany’s Zoning Board holding that a church’s partnership with a not-for-profit entity to house 14 homeless individuals at the church parsonage was a permissible use for a house of worship. The Court agreed that assisting the homeless is consistent with the mission and actions of a house of worship. See, Matter of Sullivan v Board of Zoning Appeals of City of Albany.
Although Sullivan did not involve a real property tax exemption, it is quite likely that the house of worship in the Sullivan case continues to receive a religious real property tax exemption despite the fact that the church is housing 14 homeless people in a single family zoning district. To the contrary, Congregation Ateres Yisroel’s lost its religious real property tax exemption based on its use of its premises to house 20 students. Both religious uses are in single family zoning districts, and both religious uses are housing multiple people.
The question perhaps becomes – Why is sheltering the homeless more in line with a religious purpose than housing 20 students? The facts in Congregation Ateres Yisroel are silent as to why the students were being housed at the property and whether their housing was in furtherance of a religious purpose. If Congregation Ateres Yisroel could establish that the student housing had some connection to its religious purpose, perhaps the result of this case would be different. At a minimum, we may have a possible split in the Departments as to what types of uses constitute “religious uses” and where and how do we draw the line? Perhaps our next update on this topic will be the result of a decision by our State’s highest court. Tune in each Monday for the latest news.