Houghton College officials deny they are "commercializing" the 48-acre West Seneca satellite campus -- rebutting claims from one neighbor that the college is stretching the limits of its "tax-exempt" status.
But town officials Monday said the college may have to start paying property taxes on its telecommunications tower, which was called a "money-maker" during a recent meeting of the West Seneca Town Board.
"The minute that we read those charges, we called the town attorney to review our status. I believe we comply with our (zoning)," said Molly Thompson, marketing manager for the campus near Southgate Plaza.
"We are allowed to hold meetings, offer classes, a library, office space for various outreach programs" and allow other educational and residential uses on the property without jeopardizing that status, she said.
"What is misinformation," she said, "is that we have retail tenants."
The Learning Tree, which Ms. Thompson called "an art school, not a craft shop," recently moved from Southgate Plaza to the campus.
Nathalie Salamone, the Learning Tree's founder, offers arts-and-craft classes, often funded through federal or state grants, for a variety of social and rehabilitative purposes, such as stress reduction for laid-off steelworkers.
At the Dec. 15 meeting of the West Seneca Town Board, Roger Harris of 400 East-West Road complained the college was "commercializing" its property by allowing the arts-and-crafts school to rent space, by leasing telecommunication tower space to a pager company and a digital portable phone service, and by marketing its new conference center to businesses.
West Seneca Town Attorney Timothy Greenan said two issues are involved -- zoning and educational tax-exemption status.
"Zoning is not an issue," Greenan said. "The Learning Tree is certainly an appropriate use. The only question is whether or not any use on that campus is 'nonprofit.' If they rented space to a profit-making operation, Houghton College would have to pay property taxes on that portion of that building."
Greenan said the town assessor was preparing a separate tax parcel for the tower long before Harris complained.
But any reassessment must wait until June 4, the one day each year when property tax status may be changed.
"That was being done before Harris complained," Greenan said.
Ms. Thompson said the charges stung the college, which is "an asset to the community."
As for the school's conference center and telecommunication facilities, she said, "those are used for teleconferencing. We don't make much from the antenna rental."
Ms. Thompson did not offer rental income figures.
"Recently we had the West Seneca police in here for training, and we've allowed the West Seneca Development Authority to use our satellite links to teleconference, thus saving the town a lot of money they'd have to spend to send authority members out of town," she said.