Dora Guo

In the history of New Haven — a city anchored by three Protestant houses of worship at its center — the intersection of religion and the law has harbored ambitious Puritans and three executioners of King Charles I. Now, a decisively modern religion is negotiating the law, social conventions of religion and the hard facts of capitalism to make its mark on the Elm City.

The Church of Scientology of Connecticut signed its inaugural by-laws in 1982. Today, it operates out of a nondescript house on Whalley Avenue in New Haven’s Westville neighborhood. Like any branch of the organization, the Church holds weekly services and facilitates auditing — a method of counseling used by the Church of Scientology — for its congregation and the public. The New Haven branch has big plans for itself and the city. Since 2003, Scientology has owned the much larger three-story structure across the street at 949 Whalley Ave., where they plan to move. The 949 property opened as a Masonic temple in 1930. Lifelong New Haveners might remember the historic building from when it was Hallock’s furniture store for the latter half of the 20th century. Since the building’s sale to the Church, the property has remained vacant, blighted and tax-exempt.

Scientology emerged in the wake of founder L. Ron Hubbard’s bestselling book “Dianetics,” a portmanteau of two Greek words meaning “through the mind.” Scientologists today read “Dianetics” and Hubbard’s other texts as the foundation of a pragmatic theology in which one can become unshackled from obstacles to achieve self-actualization. The church proselytizes these purported means of transcendence to the public in warzones, public parks and through its TV network. Like any proselytizing faith, the church embeds itself in communities around the world over to spread its message.

In a letter to the News, Church of Scientology of Connecticut President Gail Cassolino described the general goals and aspirations of the Church in New Haven. “The Church of Scientology is involved in the community through our humanitarian programs aimed at addressing the devastation and human misery wrought by drug abuse, illiteracy and moral decay — to say nothing of natural and man-made disasters,” Cassolino wrote. “The Church of Scientology’s revolutionary social betterment and humanitarian programs … are utterly unique, indisputably cutting edge and most importantly — effective.”

L. Ron Hubbard envisioned that his church would facilitate community engagement through what are called “Ideal Organizations.” With a presence on four continents, the Ideal Orgs serve as regional embassies of the Church where a large staff administers the gamut of the Church’s course selection.

While the Church of Connecticut hopes to transform the New Haven branch into an Ideal Org, a regional center for Scientology, the 949 property remains unrenovated and unoccupied, 16 years after its purchase — according to tax documents from 2003–19 from the New Haven City Clerk’s Office, Assessor’s Office and the Office of Building Inspection and Enforcement.

The property’s zoning has yet to change from mercantile to religious, reflecting that the site has never hosted a religious service. Since purchasing the property, the Church has not completed any substantial renovations to the department store, according to city records. In its years of neglect, the would-be Ideal Org has attracted attention from the City of New Haven’s Livable City Initiative for its blight. In addition, the Church has obtained tax-exempt status by applying every four years through the city’s tax assessor’s office. Still, the building has remained abandoned for years, drawing the scrutiny of city officials and neighbors. Regardless, the Church of Scientology of Connecticut maintains its bold vision for the building at 949 Whalley Ave., holding fundraisers and imploring members to “Help Make New Haven Ideal.”

The Property on Whalley Avenue

Intertwined with the history of New Haven is the influence of religious movements from the Puritans to the Church of Scientology. The English Civil War prompted three of the executioners of King Charles I to flee persecution from King Charles II who sought to avenge his father’s death. Edward Whalley, John Dixwell and William Goffe fled to New Haven where they were given refuge as regicides from the reinstated English crown. After arriving in the colonies, Goffe and Whalley escaped to Judges Rock, a cave in West Rock Park, where sympathetic New Haveners brought them food while they were in hiding through the summer of 1661.

New Haven knows the names Whalley, Goffe and Dixwell today from the three streets radiating westward from Broadway. West Rock — where political and religious refugees sought protection from persecution — casts its shadow over a community with a diverse set of faiths.

At the time of the building’s sale for $1.5 million in 2003, the project was shovel-ready. Building permits were filed, blueprints were submitted and Westville anticipated an Ideal Org on its doorstep. Scientology contracted construction firm Foit-Albert Associates to begin work on the site in 2004, according to emails between Foit-Albert and city inspectors. Project manager Gwen Howard wrote New Haven Building Inspector Daniel O’Neill for a preliminary review of the renovations. In her email, Howard included plans for a site that would accommodate up to 1,000 people. The firm’s blueprints for the 18,000-square feet building imagined cavernous course rooms and a massive auditorium.

The Church filed a building permit to work on the building’s interior framing on April 15, 2004, which estimated $150,000 in construction costs. From then on, no substantive renovations have taken place according to city officials. The 2004 permit was voided by the city in 2009.

In a Feb. 5, 2004 letter addressed to the Church of Scientology, New Haven Building Official Andrew Rizzo wrote that “periodic inspections by Assistant Building Inspector Robert Walsh including the last inspection on Feb. 4, 2009 revealed that the authorized work was abandoned. Therefore, you are hereby informed under Section 105.5 of the 2005 State Building Code that this permit has been voided and any further work shall require the issuance of a new permit.”

Things Fall Apart

In order to be exempt from taxation per section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, an organization must operate with one or more of the purposes outlined by the Internal Revenue Service, including but not limited to: relief of the poor, the advancement of religion and combating community deterioration and juvenile delinquency. The government has embedded in its tax code the social function of a religious organization, implicitly linking the rule of law with the role of religion in society.

The State of Connecticut’s tax statutes allow mercantile-zoned buildings undergoing renovation to claim tax-exempt status. The property at 949 Whalley Ave. has been zoned mercantile since its conversion to Hallock’s furniture store in 1972 and has not changed since then, according to New Haven city records. As the city’s inspectors have repeatedly determined that the property has not undergone renovations and that it is not being used for religious purposes, 949 should be subject to the same taxation as any other mercantile property in New Haven. The Church of Scientology disagrees with the city’s assessment, according to its appeals to the city.

On Aug. 16, 2010, the City of New Haven filed civil action against the Church of Scientology with the objective of foreclosing the 949 property and taking possession of it. In the notice of lis pendens, the city identified “[obtaining] possession of the said premises” as one of its goals. In 2011, New Haven spokesman Adam Joseph told the New Haven Register that inspections from the tax assessor’s office deemed the property non-tax-exempt and that Church officials had been notified that taxes would be due in July 2009. He added that the Church of Scientology was the only religious organization in New Haven that failed to complete construction, thereby threatening their exemption. In spite of this, the suit closed in December 2012, and the city ultimately did not seize the property, according to court records.

Amid the lawsuit, the Church reinitiated conversations with contractors to work on the renovations originally proposed in 2004. In 2011, Don Dinkel, an associate at Gensler — an Atlanta-based contractor — sent an email to O’Neill, the original building inspector, updating him on conversations with his clients. He said that the “Schematic Design phase may be starting in the next few months.”

The firm issued blueprints resembling the grandiose 2004 vision for the Ideal Org. Updated blueprints with furnishings foresaw the Church’s logo emblazoned on the second floor. Bookshelves stocked with Hubbard’s writings would greet guests ascending the stoop from Whalley Avenue.

Months passed, though, and no building permits were filed for those plans, according to public records. Since 2011, the Church has only contracted asbestos removal and roof repairs for the 949 building, according to invoices obtained from Board of Assessment Appeals records.

Every four years, the New Haven Tax Assessor’s Office conducts a review of organizations in the Elm City that claim tax-exempt status. Churches, cemeteries and charities alike plead their exemption on a form where they must identify the traits of their work that merit an exemption. On her 2017 application for tax exemption, Cassolino, the president of the Connecticut branch, wrote that the Church is a religious corporation, attaching the branch’s by-laws. The application was rejected.

Acting Tax Assessor Alexzander Pullen reviews applications for all of the tax-exempt properties during the quadrennial review process and decides whether or not they qualify for an exemption. In February of last year, Pullen’s office sent a letter to the Church stating that “in accordance with Connecticut General Statutes, we inform you that your application has been denied.” Rejected applications are eligible to appeal the decision before the Board of Assessment Appeals, on which Pullen does not sit to prevent conflict of interest.

In its appeal process, the Church of Scientology of Connecticut submitted invoices from contractors it had hired for roof repairs in 2014 and asbestos removal in 2016 as evidence for tax-exempt status. The Church also included 8-by-10 inch photos of fundraisers for the Ideal Org, depicting a group of exuberant parishioners participating in auctions on Scientology holidays such as “Auditors Day 2017.”

In an interview, Chairman of the Board of Assessment Appeals Jeffrey Granoff said that he could not recall any interactions with the Church of Scientology and did not remember approving the appeal. Nonetheless, city records show that Granoff approved the Church’s appeal in March 2018. This renewed the Church’s tax-exempt status until 2021.

In 2018, the 949 property was taxed $66,384.76, but the Church’s exemption voided the taxation. If the New Haven Tax Assessor’s Office had taxed the mercantile zoned property for all of its 16 years in the Church’s ownership, Scientology would owe the Elm City $1,062,156.16 in back taxes at 2019’s mill rate of 42.98 and appraised property value of $2,305,100.

Unlivable City

In an effort to combat urban blight and promote “safer, healthier and more attractive communities,” the City of New Haven launched the Livable City Initiative. The LCI monitors neighborhood concerns regarding superficial infractions like overgrown grass, as well as more interpersonal conflicts. In October 2017, the LCI cited Scientology for violating the Elm City’s Anti-Blight and Property Maintenance Ordinance. LCI inspector Jillian Driscoll’s report noted “unreasonable interference,” commenting that “neighbors are continuously reporting [the] building as a nuisance in the neighborhood.” The report also critiqued the “temporary windows and doors,” demanding that the blighted ones in place be replaced with new materials. As for the landscaping, the report said it needed “major work,” citing overgrown vegetation and unmaintained tree belts.

Tensions have also arisen in the past between Westville community members and the Church. At a building planning meeting in November 2018, community members and lawyers representing the Church of Scientology of Connecticut debated concerns about proposals for the 949 building. The New Haven Independent reported that Alder Richard Furlow complained about the Church’s “poor maintenance” of 949. Westville Village Renaissance Alliance Executive Director Lizzy Donius reportedly said at the meeting that Scientology’s blighted building was her “number one economic development issue.”

In her letter to the News, Cassolino emphasized that the Church has addressed concerns presented by neighbors and city officials.

“The Church responded to the City of New Haven in accordance with all laws and worked with the City to resolve any matters of concern,” Cassolino wrote. “The only issue at the time was related to the yard work. The Church handled whatever was required within a reasonable amount of time.”

Furlow told the Independent that there were often broken windows and piles of trash about the property and that no one he had ever spoken to at the Church had ever followed through on his “persistent requests that they keep the building clean and secure.”

“Unfortunately there’s a lot of bad blood in the community with this organization that a little bit of effort would have resolved,” Furlow told the Independent.

In an email to the News, LCI inspector Jillian Driscoll said that she has had pleasant interactions with the Church. After sending a notice of violation in 2017, she said the Church quickly addressed all of the grievances and did not get fined. In her letter to the News, Cassolino said that the Church factors the neighborhood into its plans for the Ideal Org. She promised that the Church will notify the neighborhood when the Org opens and will be invited for tours. “It will be expected that the impact will be positive,” Cassolino wrote.

If you build it, will they come?

In 2014, researchers from Florida State University’s Center for Economic Forecasting and Analysis published a report on the economic impact of Scientology in Clearwater, Florida, where the Church has its international spiritual headquarters: the Flag Organization.

Over the course of 15 years, the Church had contributed over $10 million in local property taxes on its land that did not directly administer religious services — temporary housing, restaurants and other facilities. The FSU report concluded that Scientology directly generated $485 million in economic activity. In 2013, the Flag Org attracted 9,000 visitors to the center for religious services. Oftentimes those visitors stayed for over a month. The Org’s economic function for Clearwater is predicated on religious tourism. The report stated that the estimated median income of the average visitor to the Flag Org was $90,326. According to the Census Bureau, the median income for Clearwater between 2013 and 2017 was $45,631.

Unlike the glimmering Clearwater facilities, the New Haven Org is stagnating in its disrepair. The disparity between the two branches of the Church reflects the difference in potential for the communities they serve. While the Flag Org represents an economic boon to the Clearwater area, a decrepit eyesore on Whalley Avenue is doing damage to curb appeal and was described in a city meeting as the neighborhood’s top economic priority. While the blueprints and artistic renderings of the Ideal Org are in the vein of the Org in Clearwater, it remains unclear whether the former furniture store will ever become Ideal, instead posing economic woes on the Westville neighborhood.

In the 2017 application for tax-exemption, Cassolino was required to report on the financial status of the organization. In the 2016 fiscal year, the Church reported income of $239,109.48 in saying that zero percent of that money was used for purposes other than those of a “religious corporation.” They reported that the gross expenses for that fiscal year were $230,378.91 with 35 percent of the funds going to salaries. This left a net balance of $8,730.57 in the Church of Scientology’s coffers for the year. In contrast, the organization filed a building permit with an estimated cost of $3.6 million earlier this year.

Still, the New Haven branch remains unconcerned. The Church continues to host fundraising events regularly. On Nov. 2, 2019, the Church solicited donations from members at a fundraising event held at the Whitneyville Cultural Commons in Hamden with Harley-Davidson-esque iconography. The fundraiser’s slogan: “Rebels with a cause.”

John Besche | john.besche@yale.edu