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Four Quarters Interfaith Sanctuary of Earth Religion v. Bedford County Bd. of Assessment & Revision of Taxes

Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania

September 16, 2014

Four Quarters Interfaith Sanctuary of Earth Religion, Appellant
v.
The Bedford County Board of Assessment and Revision of Taxes

Page 604

Appealed from No. 1563 for 2012. State Agency Common Pleas Court of the County of Bedford. Judge Howsare, Senior Judge.

Robert W. Lape, Jr., Roaring Spring, for appellant.

Barry R. Scatton, Bedford, for appellee.

BEFORE: HONORABLE BONNIE BRIGANCE LEADBETTER, Judge, HONORABLE ROBERT SIMPSON, Judge, HONORABLE MARY HANNAH LEAVITT, Judge.

OPINION

Page 605

MARY HANNAH LEAVITT, Judge

Four Quarters Interfaith Sanctuary of Earth Religion (Taxpayer) appeals an order of the Court of Common Pleas of Bedford County (trial court) granting Taxpayer a partial tax exemption for two parcels of land it owns in Bedford County. The trial court held that because only portions of the property are used as actual places of worship, Taxpayer was entitled to a partial tax exemption. We affirm in part, reverse in part, and remand the matter to the trial court for further findings.

Background

Taxpayer is a religious organization of 350 members that owns land in Bedford County where the members perform their outdoor religious rituals. In 2012, Taxpayer requested a tax exemption for two specific parcels, known as the Leisinger Tract and the Stone Circle Tract (collectively, the Property), that total 90 acres. The Bedford County Board of Assessment and Revision of Taxes denied this request, and Taxpayer appealed. The trial court conducted a hearing and heard testimony from several of Taxpayer's members. The Board did not present any witnesses.

Orren Whiddon testified that he is the only member who lives near the Property. Because most members travel from various parts of the northeast, religious services are frequently held on Saturday so that the members can return home on Sunday. Because some of Taxpayer's religious practices can last multiple days or weeks, Taxpayer has established campsites throughout the Property for members. Although the campsites are open to the public, generally only members use them because Taxpayer does not advertise the campsites to the public, has strict rules prohibiting alcohol consumption, and does not permit cars at the campsites.

With the installation of campsites, membership increased. To accommodate growth, Taxpayer built a dormitory, a kitchen, an open air pavilion, storage sheds, a shower and toilet facilities. Only the dormitory and the kitchen are fully enclosed. Taxpayer has also erected various altars throughout the Property, allowing a greater number of ceremonies to be performed.

Whiddon testified that Taxpayer's religious practices require strict privacy. Whiddon explained that if members believe " they're being observed in a casual disrespected manner[,] they're going to pack up their ceremony and go elsewhere and you will never see them again." Reproduced Record at 57a (R.R. $ ). Whiddon

Page 606

explained that, of the 90 acres of land at issue, 45 acres are unwalkable, but this land serves as a buffer to protect members' need for privacy. According to Whiddon, " without the buffer ... it's not possible to maintain the physical sacred sanctity of these physical places." R.R. 46a.

Roger Grandstaff, another member, agreed with Whiddon's assertion that the privacy offered by the unwalkable land is essential to the existence of the sanctuary. Another member, Professor Alan Shear, testified that " privacy provides the congregation with an element of safety in that they can practice their religion without any doubt of interference." [1] R.R.105a. With respect to the 45 acres of unwalkable land on the Property, Shear stated that the " fact that you can't walk on them does not make ...


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