Members of Twelve Tribes still plan to buy building
ONEONTA — Members of the Twelve Tribes who want to open a Main Street restaurant were turned down by the city Planning Commission on Wednesday night.
But group members Ken and Karen Hart said they were still going through with the purchase of 175-177 Main St. and would appeal to the Common Council.
Although receiving more “yes” votes than “no” votes, their plan to open a Common Ground Cafe was defeated because it couldn’t garner the four votes needed for approval.
“Municipal law requires a true majority of seats on the board,” Commissioner Rob Robinson explained before a recount.
With Commissioner Jean Ostrowski absent from the seven-member board and Commissioner and Latte Lounge owner David Zummo abstaining, two “no” votes from Commissioners Ellen Falduto and George Demchak were enough to defeat the proposal.
Commissioners Robinson, Karl Seeley and Chairman Frank Gallucci voted in favor of the plan.
Regardless of the outcome of the vote, the Harts said they are planning to close on the real-estate deal next week with building owner Peter Clark.
“These people are buying this building,” Clark said. “This is a done deal.”
Although some of the two dozen members of the public at the meeting spoke out in opposition to the group’s plans, others said not allowing the Harts to open a restaurant would be un-American.
The Twelve Tribes is a communal organization that has garnered criticism since its inception in the 1970s. Critics say the group is a controlling cult that practices child abuse and violates child labor laws.
Twelve Tribes member Roderick Frandino has previously said the group is not a cult and that members are only trying to live their way of life.
Oneonta resident Alice Lichtenstein said she was in contact with a former Twelve Tribes member who would be writing a letter to The Daily Star detailing the inner workings of the group.
Lichtenstein said the Twelve Tribes had an outer doctrine of presenting a friendly face to the communities in which they operate while maintaining an inner doctrine that includes controlling the lives of members and the promotion of homophobia, racism and anti-Semitism.
“That business is a front for something else, and that’s the crux of the matter here tonight,” Fifth Ward Alderman Rodger Moran said.
Real-estate agent Dick Cavanagh, who is brokering the deal, said the discussion was focusing too much on the religious beliefs of the Harts.
“There’s a flag over there,” Cavanagh said. “This is a free democracy based on free enterprise.”
Downtown Developer Jeff House spoke out several times in favor of the plan.
“I’ve heard nothing but good reports from everyone I’ve spoken with as far as (the Twelve Tribes) operating their businesses,” House said.
House said he researched other communities where the Twelve Tribes do business and said their establishments appeared strong.
Oneonta resident Grace Smith said she was “appalled” that comments from the public were focusing on the religious beliefs of the Twelve Tribes members.
“It’s not an issue for this council,” Smith said. “If someone wants to rent a house in my neighborhood, I don’t question their religious beliefs.”
Some in opposition to the group’s plans said they would organize a boycott of the restaurant.
But Robert Racine, who spoke on behalf of the Harts on Wednesday night, said they were not concerned about any protests.
“Every business assumes a risk, and we’re not afraid of a boycott,” Racine said. “We’re not afraid of controversy.”
As the hour-and-a-half long discussion shifted to the details of the business, Racine said the group would be paying all applicable property taxes.
“Oneonta is a nice place,” Racine said. “We have several people in our community from the Oneonta area.
“We will support local restaurant suppliers and our restaurant will continue to pay its local property taxes,” Racine said.
Racine repeatedly referred to the Twelve Tribes as having 501(D) corporation status, which he said was a federally recognized status as a communal organization.
The Twelve Tribes operates Common Ground Cafes in seven cities in New York, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and West Virginia.