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$2 million tax on Legion of Christ removed

 

9/11/2004 8:25:00 PM by SUSAN ELAN - THE JOURNAL NEWS

 

MOUNT PLEASANT - The town, schools and Westchester County must refund more than $2 million in back taxes to the Legion of Christ, a Roman Catholic religious order, a state appeals court ruled this week.

 

The state Supreme Court's Appellate Division found the group was entitled to tax exemptions for religious uses, because it "in good faith contemplated" building a grotto, rosary path and outdoor chapel on 168 acres, even though the Legion never did.

 

The Legion has since dropped those plans in favor of a proposed $200 million undergraduate college on its vacant property. In May, the lengthy environmental review process for Westchester University began. The university also would be tax-exempt.

 

Town officials yesterday said they plan to appeal this latest decision in what has become a seven-year legal battle.

 

"We feel very strongly about our position, and we are going to ask the courts to revisit the case," Town Supervisor Robert Meehan said. "It's not over yet."

 

Legion spokesman John Marwell, a Mount Kisco-based lawyer, said Tuesday's ruling supports the order's contention.

 

"We are gratified that the Appellate Division agreed with us and saw the case our way," Marwell said.

 

At stake is $2.13 million the Legion has paid in taxes dating from 1997 through 2001. About half of that went to the Mount Pleasant Central School District, $400,000 to the county and $600,000 to the town. Currently, the Legion pays $450,000 a year in total taxes.

 

If the court decision sticks, other taxpayers will have to absorb the loss, Meehan said. "I don't know how much it would be on each tax bill, but it's significant," he said.

 

A town appeal to the state's highest court, the Court of Appeals, could prove difficult, Marwell said, because the justices first would have to agree to hear the case.

 

And the justices already have ruled against the town once. In February, the Court of Appeals reversed a lower court's finding that the Legion was not entitled to tax exemption solely because the order did not seek a special-use permit. The high court ordered the Appellate Division to determine whether the Legion truly intended to develop the property as a place of worship.

 

This week, the Appellate Division ruled the Legion plan was made in good faith, so the property should be tax-exempt for 1997 through 2001.

 

Lino Sciarretta, a White Plains-based lawyer who is representing Mount Pleasant, said in addition to seeking permission to appeal to the Court of Appeals again, the town may ask the appellate court to review its decision with respect to exemption tax year by tax year.

 

The Legion owns 265 acres in Mount Pleasant - an estate it bought from IBM in 1996 for $33.5 million. The other 97 acres, where the order trains seminarians and holds conferences, are the subject of a second Appellate Division case over tax exemption.

 

 

 

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