The City Forced Their Church's Expensive Demolition

Now the appraisal district wants $100,000

Pastor Arthur (l) and Clem Sneed stand on New Jerusalem Baptist Church property Feb. 15 (Photo by John Anderson)

When A.L. Sneed Sr. was named pastor of the New Jerusalem Baptist Church in Montopolis in 1971, the church was in financial trouble – in danger of losing its lease on a storefront in the 1700 block of Montopolis Street and in need of more space for its growing congregation.

After several months, Sneed got word that a property at 6605 E. Riverside was available and jumped. He sold his 15-passenger van to make the $5,000 down payment on the plot, which was once freedmen's land where formerly enslaved people gathered. There wasn't a building yet to hold services in, so the Sneeds went to Ft. Hood and purchased a decommissioned Army barracks for $215 and brought it back to Austin. The New Jerusalem Baptist Church stood there for decades, serving a small congregation of members who lived in the neighborhood.

“This is our place. God blessed us with this area. We paid for this. We didn’t have no lawyers and doctors in our congregation – we were a small congregation, we stood together, and everybody worked together.” – Clem Sneed, wife of pastor A.L. Sneed

But in 2015, as the rate of gentrification in Montopolis was intensifying, the Sneeds got word from the city of Austin that the church building was unsafe. People in the church were shocked, arguing that the building was both in solid shape physically and historically significant.

According to Tara Long, a public information specialist with the Austin Code Depart­ment, Austin Code communicated with the city's Historic Preservation Office to determine whether the building had any historical significance and was told that July that it had none. In August, the city's Building and Standards Commission ordered that the building be demolished within 60 days and ruled that if it was not demolished by then, the city could demolish it itself and "assess its expenses against the property and file a lien for all expenses incurred."

The order left church officials scrambling. They had to raise thousands of dollars to finance the demolition and were left without a main building to hold services in. The timing of the demolition order felt like a pointed message, but Sneed was determined that the loss of the building would not be the end of the church's story. The church thought about putting up a tent to hold services in, but decided not to out of a fear that it would be stolen. Nevertheless, even during the pandemic, the small congregation continued to find ways to meet on the property.

"There were times that we were able to be there for services, like a day like today, when the sun was out," Sneed said. "There were other times when it was raining, and whatever we planned, we couldn't do it. But we would show up in cars."

But another bureaucratic nightmare was just around the corner. Without notifying church leaders, the Travis Central Apprais­al District retroactively stripped the church of its religious organization property tax exemption for 2016 and 2017 – leaving it on the hook for tens of thousands of dollars in property taxes. Daniela Peinado Welsh, an attorney representing the church on a pro bono basis, said she thinks TCAD officials figured there couldn't be a church operating on the property without a building. (Welsh works at the same firm as the Chronicle's attorney, Pete Kennedy.) The Sneeds were blindsided.

"All of the sudden, we got this tax bill," Sneed said. "And I told [church member] Sam Pleasant and my wife, 'Go check this out, because we've been exempt all of these years. Why is it all of the sudden we get a tax bill?'"

Welsh said there is nothing in the property tax code that requires there be a building on the land in order to satisfy the definition of property and qualify for the exemption. The church got the exemption restored for 2016 and 2017, but TCAD canceled the exemption again in 2018. By the time the church became aware that it had again lost the exemption, it was delinquent on three years of taxes on a property valued at $1,109,909 and then $1,280,664.

The church got its exemption back in 2021 and 2022, but is now in a fight to have it restored for the years 2018-2020 rather than paying well over $100,000 in back taxes. Welsh wants to go to trial on the exemption question, but she said TCAD lawyers are claiming that the church has not exhausted its administrative options. A TCAD spokesperson declined to comment on the specifics of the case.

"I feel like we're being targeted," Pleasant said. "In response to all of the gentrification, they're targeting us, a historically Black church ... to get us out of there so they can utilize that area."

New Jerusalem Baptist Church being demolished in 2015 (Courtesy of New Jerusalem Baptist Church)

The ferocious pace of gentrification in Montopolis has loomed over the church's struggles with the city and the appraisal district. Sneed said that he's lost count of the number of offers on the property he has received from developers, including from the owner of an apartment complex development adjacent to the church property. Some of those developers have taken the Sneeds out to dinners and shown them properties in other areas of the city they could relocate to, but it hasn't mattered. The Sneeds are adamant they won't sell.

"This is our place," said Clem Sneed, A.L. Sneed's wife. "God blessed us with this area. We paid for this. We didn't have no lawyers and doctors in our congregation – we were a small congregation, we stood together, and everybody worked together."

Sneed said that even if the church is unable to get the exemption back for the three years and is forced to pay the property taxes, they still won't sell. "To sell it would be just like a slap in the face," he said.

The site's historical significance is a major factor. Sneed said that before the church building was condemned, he was thinking about applying for a historical marker for the site. For now, the Sneeds are simply refusing to be forced out.

"Before, the area was almost deserted," Clem Sneed said of her neighborhood. "Now, you want to build all this other stuff up and push us out. I don't think it's fair."

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