Holy Land's mansions taxable, Orange property appraiser says

Orlando Sentinel/April 19, 2012

Trinity Broadcasting Network apparently didn't have a prayer when it asked Orange County's property appraiser to reclassify a couple of million-dollar lakefront mansions in Windermere as parsonages to avoid the county's property tax.

The nonprofit Christian-television network, which owns the Holy Land Experience theme park in south Orlando, applied two years ago for religious tax exemptions that would have saved it $50,000 a year.

But the Property Appraiser's Office decided "the property is being used more as a substitute for hotel accommodations rather than as a parsonage for religious purposes." Neither home fit the definition of a parsonage, it concluded, because the people using them were administrators more than they were clergy.

According to property-appraiser records, the county denied the request for religious tax exemptions last year, though the issue came to light only recently as part of a lawsuit filed in Southern California.

A relative, by marriage, of the granddaughter of Trinity Broadcasting's two founders has accused the network of illegal behavior and misuse of funds, including its representation of mansions as church guest homes or parsonages in such well-known locales as Miami; Nashville, Tenn.; Newport Beach, Calif.; Irving, Texas; Costa Mesa, Calif.; and Lake Arrowhead, Calif.

Trinity Broadcasting, started in 1973 by Paul and Jan Crouch, has grown into a major religious broadcaster with TV programs distributed worldwide. The Tustin, Calif.-based company gained a foothold in Central Florida in 2007 when it took over Holy Land Experience, a faith-based theme park at Interstate 4 and Conroy Road in south Orlando.

The lawsuit filed by Joseph McVeigh alleges that the parsonages are just one of several "unlawful and related financial schemes" that "involve more than $50 million in unlawful and unreported income distributions to Trinity Broadcasting's directors." It also alleges that the organization retaliated against the Crouch's granddaughter Brittany Koper and McVeigh when Koper threatened to disclose the improprieties.

Trinity Broadcasting has blasted the suits as having come from "discredited sources" who, the organization alleges, were themselves the ones involved in the misappropriation of funds.

"They're attempting to create as much scandal as they can in the public eye," said Colby May, a lawyer and a spokesman for TBN.

May said the Windermere homes are used as temporary housing for people who either work for Trinity or are in the area to provide programming or services for Holy Land or a television station the company owns in Cocoa.

Some are ordained ministers, though others are not.

Based on property records, TBN's two homes away from home in Central Florida are well-appointed properties. The side-by-side mansions on Lake Down boast a combined 10,000 square feet of living space, two luxurious pools, summer kitchens, a spa and a boathouse valued at $15,000.

One of the homes has four bedrooms and five baths, while the other has five bedrooms and 41/2 baths. They were bought in 2009 for $1.8 million and $1.9 million, respectively.

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