In re Appeal of Nirmalananda, 022520 PACCA, 540 C.D. 2019

Docket Nº:540 C.D. 2019
Opinion Judge:McCULLOUGH, JUDGE
Party Name:In Re: Appeal of Saraswati Nirmalananda from the Decision Assessment Appeals for Property Located at 1400 Hampton Drive, West Bradford Township, Chester County, Pennsylvania Tax Parcel No.: 50-02-0091.0000 Appeal of: Downingtown Area School District
Judge Panel:BEFORE: HONORABLE PATRICIA A. McCULLOUGH, Judge, HONORABLE ANNE E. COVEY, Judge, HONORABLE ELLEN CEISLER, Judge
Case Date:February 25, 2020
Court:Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania
 
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In Re: Appeal of Saraswati Nirmalananda from the Decision Assessment Appeals for Property Located at 1400 Hampton Drive, West Bradford Township, Chester County, Pennsylvania

Tax Parcel No.: 50-02-0091.0000

Appeal of: Downingtown Area School District

No. 540 C.D. 2019

Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania

February 25, 2020

OPINION NOT REPORTED

Argued: November 12, 2019

BEFORE: HONORABLE PATRICIA A. McCULLOUGH, Judge, HONORABLE ANNE E. COVEY, Judge, HONORABLE ELLEN CEISLER, Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

McCULLOUGH, JUDGE

Downingtown Area School District (School District) appeals from the April 19, 2019 order of the Court of Common Pleas of Chester County (trial court). The School District contends that the trial court erred in denying its motion for a new trial on the basis of after-discovered evidence and in partially exempting from real property taxes the first floor of a building as a place of religious worship. Because we conclude that the School District is entitled to engage in additional discovery with respect to its after-discovered claim, we vacate and remand for further proceedings.

Background

Saraswati Nirmalananda (Landowner) is the owner of 1.1301 acres of land located at 1400 Hampton Drive, West Bradford Township, Chester County, Pennsylvania, Tax Parcel I.D. No. 50-02-0091.0000. A 2-story building containing 4, 000 square feet of finished space is situated on the land (Property) and is located within the taxing area of the School District.

On July 21, 2016, Landowner filed an application for exemption of real estate taxes with the Chester County Board of Assessment Appeals (Board). Landowner asserted that the Property is entitled to an exemption from taxes pursuant to section 204(a)(1) of The General County Assessment Law (Law), Act of May 22, 1933, P.L. 853, as amended, 72 P.S. §5020-204(a)(1), 1 as an actual place of regularly stated religious worship. In the application, Landowner described the Property as a "residential monastery" where "1/2 of the [P]roperty is used for prayer and as a meditation hall"; "3/8 of the [P]roperty is used as residential facilities for monks living in the monastery for religious practices and studies"; and the "remaining 1/8 of the [P]roperty is residential space for [Landowner], the spiritual head of Svaroopa Vidya Ashram." (Reproduced Record (R.R.) at 131a.) After the Board denied the exemption, Landowner appealed to the trial court which conducted a de novo trial.

Significant to our resolution of the instant appeal, prior to trial, the School District served Landowner with a Request for the Production of Documents. Among other things, the School District sought "[c]opies of any documents related to the use of the Property by Landowner." (R.R. at 138a.)

At trial, Landowner testified and admitted documentary evidence detailing the Property's layout. As described by Landowner, the second floor of the Property is approximately 2, 000 square feet and is residential in nature, containing six bedrooms (three single occupancy and three double occupancy) and three bathrooms. The first floor is also approximately 2, 000 square feet and, for present purposes, may be divided into five discrete areas, specifically a: (1) meditation hall, (2) meeting room, (3) kitchen and dining room, (4) reading room, and (5) entry hall and parlor. (R.R. at 16a-17a, 52a-53a, 119a-21a.)

Landowner testified that she is the spiritual leader of a group of Hindu monks known as an "ashram," which generally refers to a monastery in which the occupants of a building devote their time to "prayers and meditation" and receive instruction in religious practices and beliefs. (R.R. at 9a-12a.) The particular ashram that uses the Property is Svaroopa Vidya Ashram (Ashram), which is based in Mumbai and is part of an established Hindu order named Saraswati. (R.R. at 6a, 11a, 26a, 83a.) Landowner, also known as "the Swami," stated that the Property is used exclusively as a church and is properly characterized as a "residential monastery." (R.R. at 6a, 42a.)

Landowner also testified that the residents of the Ashram live in a communal atmosphere and gather together to worship their deity or deities on a daily basis. (R.R. at 25a.) Landowner said that the monks convene on the first floor at least three times a day, on an established schedule, and engage in meditations, hymns, and prayers, commonly led by Landowner. (R.R. at 15a, 20a.) The testimony of Landowner further established that the meditation hall is a place "where the residents are gathered together for meditation," (R.R. at 20a); the "swami meeting room" is used to facilitate "spiritual development," (R.R. at 20a); and "for private spiritual counseling meetings with the residents and occasionally with some of the members of the community who live outside." (R.R. at 15a.)

Regarding the kitchen and dining rooms, Landowner explained that all meals are communal, begin with religious chanting, and that the conversations are focused on spiritual training and development and questions about Hindu texts. (R.R. at 79a-80a.) According to Landowner, all food must comply with strict religious dietary restrictions, in observance of a practice prescribed by an ancient Hindu text called "Ayurveda," and the consumption of meat, fish, and eggs is prohibited. (R.R. at 17a.) Otherwise, Landowner stated that the parlor is used for group meetings of members of the Ashram, and the reading room is devoted to reading primarily religious texts. (R.R. at 15a-16a.) Landowner explained that all of those who occupy the Property receive religious instruction, including the study of ancient religious texts. Landowner added that there are time-honored group participation practices, such as the laying of the hands, which is intended to "open[] up access to deeper and more ecstatic experiences within." (R.R. at 38a.)

Additionally, Landowner testified, in part, as follows: Q. Have you received any approvals from [West Bradford Township] to run a church or run an ashram at that property?

A. The township is very well aware of what we are doing, and [it] treat[s] us as a group home.

Q. Have you received any approvals to run a religious facility at that property?

A. We have a letter from [the township], but I don't know if you call that approval[]. The letter approves it, yes.

(R.R. at 44a.)

By order dated September 26, 2017, the trial court found the Property exempt from property taxes to the extent of 50% of the total valuation thereof. More precisely, the trial court "determined that the first floor of this building, but only the first floor, is entitled to exemption." (Order, 9/26/17, at 1 n.1.)

On October 25, 2017, the School District filed a notice of appeal to this Court. The next day, the trial court directed the School District to file a Pa.R.A.P. 1925(b) statement of errors complained of on appeal, which the School District timely filed on November 16, 2017. Thereafter, on January 10, 2018, the trial court filed its Pa.R.A.P. 1925(a) opinion.

In its Pa.R.A.P. 1925(a) opinion, the trial court stated that "[t]he sole issue raised on appeal is that [] Landowner did not meet her burden of proving that the first floor of the [P]roperty which is the subject of this tax assessment appeal is an actual place of regularly stated religious worship." (Trial court op. at 1-2.) Framing the issue in this manner, the trial court, relying predominately on the testimony of Landowner, which the trial court found to be credible, recounted, found, and determined as follows: [Landowner] testified that the first floor consists of a meditation hall, meeting room, kitchen and dining room, reading room and entry hall and parlor. The participants meet in the meditation hall three times a day and use it for meditations, hymns and prayers. The meeting room is used for private spiritual counseling. The parlor is used for group...

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