Oorah, a New Jersey-based nonprofit that runs summer camps for Jewish children in the Schoharie County towns of Jefferson and Gilboa, has won a major victory in a longstanding legal battle with the town of Jefferson over whether Oorah was entitled to an exemption from local property taxes.
The battle between Jefferson and Oorah has been fierce, and there is much at stake for both sides. In 2009, Oorah bought the former Scotch Valley ski resort to run as a summer camp. In 2012, Oorah applied to be exempt from paying property taxes on its upstate properties, which in the town of Jefferson amounted to over $200,000 a year in annual tax revenue for the town, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal. Rather than grant Oorah the exemption, the town of Jefferson opted to fight the matter in court.
In the recent decision, handed down unanimously by a five-member panel of judges of the New York State Supreme Court's Third Appellate Division on July 17, Justice John Egan Jr. wrote that Oorah had demonstrated that its Jefferson properties were being used for charitable purposes:
...we are satisfied that petitioner met its burden of showing that it was organized exclusively for religious or charitable purposes and that the subject parcels, in turn, were used exclusively for carrying out such purposes.
In their lawsuit, Town of Jefferson officials argued that because Oorah allegedly violated local building and fire code on several of its land parcels, those parcels should not receive tax-exempt status. The court rejected this argument, writing in the decision that if the town believes Oorah is not complying with local building code, the proper remedy is to issue a stop-work order or other enforcement action.
In a statement, Oorah celebrated the decision, calling Jefferson's lawsuit a "vindictive abuse of power," and contrasts Jefferson's lawsuit with the "fair, non-discriminatory, working relationship" the organization has with the nearby town of Gilboa.
"With no basis for denying Oorah its tax exemption, the town was, in effect, attempting to extract millions of dollars from its charity beneficiaries," Oorah officials wrote.
The lawsuit against Oorah was initiated under the administration of former town supervisor Dan Singletary, who lost reelection in November of 2013 to current supervisor Sean Jordan. Oorah's statement calls out Singletary personally:
"The town waged war against Oorah from the day the organization bought the former ski lodge property, beginning with Singletary refusing to process its building permit applications in 2010, despite Oorah’s good faith efforts to comply with all the township’s demands," Oorah wrote.
If Jefferson opts to continue the legal battle, the town could attempt to appeal to the state's top court, the New York State Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals agrees to hear only a small percentage of cases that are decided at a lower court level.
The town has not yet decided whether to appeal the decision, Jordan told the Watershed Post.
"We need to consult with the town attorney, and with the attorneys that are representing us in the case, before we can make a final determination in the case," Jordan said. "We will respect the court's decision, and in conjunction with that, pursue what's in the best interest of the town."
Jordan, who inherited the legal dispute from his predecessor, said that he thought the situation should have been resolved outside of a courtroom.
"Personally, I feel that there was a major communication breakdown and a personality clash between the prior supervisor and Oorah," Jordan said. "Once it got to that fork in the road where the town was faced with the decision to lose everything right away or fight it in court, they had to pursue the legal option. But I don't think it should have gotten to that point."
Asked whether the town was currently attempting to negotiate with Oorah to make any voluntary payments in lieu of taxes, Jordan declined to comment.
The court that handed down the recent Oorah decision also decided another high-profile religious tax exemption case last year: a fight between the town of Catskill and a local Pagan religious order, the Maetreum of Cybele. In their decision, the court sided with the Maetreum, ruling that the tiny religious group was entitled to its property tax exemption. The town of Catskill has appealed the decision, and the case will be heard by the New York State Court of Appeals.