A simple discussion between Mohonk Preserve and the New Paltz Town Board on May 22 prompted a heated exchange about taxation, the merit of Mohonk’s tax-exempt status and development in the Mohonk Foothills. Glenn Hoagland, Mohonk Preserve’s executive director, came to Town Hall asking the board to endorse their bid for $600,000 in New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation grant money.
That money will help fund the proposed Lenape Lane and Testimonial Gatehouse restoration project.
Hoagland likely didn’t expect an ambush.
Town Councilman Kevin Barry tore into Mohonk Preserve for being off the tax rolls. He classified Mohonk as a private nature preserve with a business model dependent on tax breaks.
“My problem here is you’re asking us to help you get taxpayer money to help you buy property and take it off the tax roll. I have a real problem with that,” the councilman said.
Barry is also the chairman of the town’s Industrial and Commercial Incentive Board (ICIB). The ICIB recently sent a letter to Mohonk, asking that the non-profit provide proof that they merit tax-exempt status.
Open Space Institute, another land preservation group, also received an ICIB letter telling them their tax-exempt status has been revoked. OSI is fighting that decision.
At issue is a town law from 1982, which says that environmental and conservation groups do not merit exemption from property taxes in New Paltz. However, Town Hall hasn’t always abided by that law. Both OSI and Mohonk Preserve had tax exemptions.
“We can’t afford to allow organizations like yours to continue to grow beyond where they should be growing,” he said.
Barry pointed to the Preserve’s riches. A 990 tax form for Mohonk Preserve filed in 2012, for instance shows that the group had $17.8 million in assets minus liabilities. They made $5.3 million in revenue in 2012, too.
Hoagland defended the Preserve’s position, saying that while they have about 8,000 acres of open space they protect and have a large budget, “we have operating deficits.”
“What would you like to see happen on those lands, other than continued protection?” Hoagland said.
Mohonk Preserve wants to buy 534 acres from OSI, including Kleinekill Farm, Humpo Marsh and the Testimonial Gatehouse lands — the former grand entryway to the for-profit Mohonk Mountain House resort.
It’s a multi-million dollar capital improvement project that could protect, in perpetuity, open space that could otherwise be developed as housing.
Supervisor Susan Zimet told Barry she thought he was picking a fight with the wrong people. Punishing a beloved local non-profit for the ills of how New York State collects property tax isn’t the answer, she added.
“My point being, I think we all have a serious problem. We know that there are more for-sale signs up than there are flowers sprouting. We have a real problem, which is why we’re killing ourselves on this board trying to reduce taxes,” Zimet said. “But ultimately, it’s a bigger problem. It’s a bigger issue. Mohonk Preserve didn’t create it.”
Town Board members voted 3-1 go endorse Mohonk Preserve’s bid for that $600,000 in grant money. Kevin Barry voted no.
Supervisor Zimet noted that the Testimonial Gatehouse project has yet to be reviewed by the Planning Board. Their vote was to support the grant application, and shouldn’t be construed as a wholesale endorsement of the site plan.
In other words, hard work still needs to be done at the Planning Board table.