A Clifton Park church has filed a wrongful discrimination lawsuit against its landlord and claims it’s being forced out of the North Country Commons shopping center where it has held worship services for the last decade.
Northway Fellowship, a nondenominational church led by Pastor Donald "Buddy" Cremeans, in January moved out of a 28,000-square-foot leased space in the Route 146 plaza in favor of holding services at Upstate Concert Hall in the same plaza, a less costly alternative.
The church says in court papers that it serves more than 1,000 worshipers and it's planning to build a 40,000-square-foot building at the corner of Ushers and Pierce roads, off Northway exit 10, to accommodate its growing congregation.
“Northway [Fellowship] faces an imminent threat to its ability to provide religious services to its congregation and is entitled to injunctive relief,” wrote Albany-based attorney William Nolan in the lawsuit, which he filed on behalf of the church last week in state Supreme Court in Saratoga County.
Howard Carr, the property’s manager, told Upstate Shows president Stanley Levinstone he broke his lease by using the venue for religious services, according to a Feb. 22 letter included in the suit. (The lease allows for a “restaurant, bar and music hall, and for no other purposes whatsoever,” the letter states.) Carr gave Levinstone 30 days to correct that or have his lease terminated.
“Terminating the Upstate lease would terminate the licensee, leaving Northway Fellowship without a current venue to hold its weekly services,” Nolan wrote in court papers, which seek an order allowing the church to keep using the space, a preliminary injunction and unspecified damages.
The church also sought a temporary restraining order preventing the landlord from evicting Upstate Shows or interfering with Northway Fellowship’s use of the space, which state Supreme Court Judge Thomas Nolan granted Thursday.
“This decision will allow Northway Church to continue to be a positive influence in the Capital Region,” reads a statement from the church. “Northway Church is excited to move forward with the next steps to build our church home at Exit 10 in good faith, and look forward to presenting in court what we believe is a very basic and straight-forward case.”
Carr and the Clifton Park plaza's landlord, Whitney Lane Holdings LLC of Long Island, are being represented by Carr’s brother, Murray Carr. He said Thursday the matter should be between the landlord and its tenant, Upstate Shows, calling the lawsuit a “sad and pathetic act on behalf of the pastor and the church.”
Carr noted the church’s longstanding “good relationship” with the landlord as a tenant in the plaza.
“Now they’re claiming discrimination? It’s kind of like what our president does now, makes unfounded accusations with no evidence,” he said.
Carr said Upstate clearly violated its lease because religious worship wasn’t permitted and no notice was given to the landlord, Whitney Lane Holdings. He said limiting uses on commercial leases serve to “protect the integrity of the center for all the other tenants.”
“It also prevents tenants from competing with the landlord as this tenant now, Upstate, is competing with the landlord,” he said. “The landlord has a lease with these people right next door.”
He added, “And they’re paying way less.”
Reached Thursday, Nolan said the landlord has not required advanced notice for “any other licensee of Upstate Shows.”
“We’re talking about other concert-like shows that are much more of an intense use than what a church would be,” he said. “My question to them is, what’s the motivation here? What’s the motivation to remove a religious organization from the premises other than the fact that it’s a religious organization?”
Carr said the church has no legal standing to interfere with the lease between Upstate and Whitney Lane Holdings, however, and thinks the case should be dismissed
”They’re asking the court to re-write the lease,” he said. “I think they know this, and they just made up the religious part. They've got nothing else.”
Cremeans, who started the church with his wife, Debbie, in Malta in the early 2000s, could not be reached for comment.