by Robert Kimmel
The year 2016 passed as most other years for the Old Dutch Church of Sleepy Hollow – with one exception. It got an annual “rental” fee bill. The invoice, for $1,700, was from the New York State Department of Transportation for the use of property located between the church’s entrance and Route 9. Most unusual was that the church had never before received a bill for the fee from the state during its use, which dates back to the Revolutionary War.
What likely led to the sudden, first billing by the Department of Transportation (DOT), was the application to the state from the church to build a new, more accessible entrance way into the historical building. “Today, entry requires scaling somewhat treacherously uneven steps,” is the description written by Aubrey Hawes, President of Friends of the Old Dutch Church and Burying Grounds, in a pamphlet outlining the fund-raising for the new project. “It has made access to this wonderful treasure virtually impossible for the people who are physically challenged,” it goes on to state.
There is no existing ramp that can be used for the disabled, and an exterior landing is risky. Changes leading to the church’s entrance came many years ago when New York State lowered Route 9, then Albany State Road, and altered the slope leading into the church. The church is a National Historical Landmark, originally built in 1685 by Frederick Philipse, the Dutch immigrant who became wealthy as a merchant and through marriage, and who acquired hundreds of acres of land in the region.
In addition to local residents who attend the church, which was made popular by Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, it is visited by thousands of tourists each year.
Hawes told The Hudson Independent that the church has used the ground leading from the road to the entrance, “…from the time of the Revolution, when it was confiscated by the State from the Phillipse family because they remained loyal to the Crown.” He said deeds for the church and burying ground were turned over to its elders and remain in a church vault. However, the patch of ground from the road virtually to the church’s doorway is state property. “It is rather surprising that they would suddenly turn around and start charging rent,” Hawes said.
Along with the use fee invoice in November was the state’s approval for the church to move ahead with the entrance way construction. “It took us years, three years to get approval from the State to improve their ground and make it safer,” Pastor Jeffrey Gargano noted. While an original bill was ignored, it was decided to pay a second invoice, as Gargano stated, “We are paying this year because we cannot afford being delayed any longer. I did not want to run the risk of getting this tied up in their bureaucracy now and interfere with the permit we need. We have asked that in the future, this rental be waived. We started this process in 2013, and we just could not get them to move, request after request.”
To pursue the church’s position, Gargano has sent a letter to “all the political figures” who could assist, including Mayor Ken Wray, Assemblyman Thomas Abinanti, and Governor Andrew Cuomo. Hawes asserted that whoever within the DOT, made the decision to bill the church “hadn’t thought it through.” However, responding to a query from this newspaper, the DOT stated that, “The Old Dutch Reformed Church applied for a Use and Occupancy permit within New York State Department of Transportation’s right-of-way. The fee they will be charged will be fair market value to use the state right-of-way. At this time the department does not have a policy allowing a waiver of fees for not-for-profits or religious organizations.”
Len Andrew, Esq., a Sleepy Hollow resident who provides voluntary legal counsel to the church, described the annual billing as “Shocking, considering that the Old Dutch Church has used the state land for so many years, and its use had been caused by the state itself when it lowered Broadway.” Andrew explained that, of the two walls fronting the church, the wall to the east approximately marks the property of the Old Dutch Church.
Regardless of how the use fee billing is settled, work on the entrances and pathways is scheduled to begin after Easter and be completed by the end of the summer.