Synagogue plan rejected in Haverstraw; RLUIPA litigation threat looms – The Journal News

Posted By on August 12, 2022

Haverstraw planning board denies the variances to K'hal Bnei Torah, in Thiells.

Haverstraw planning board denies the variances to K'hal Bnei Torah, in Thiells.

Rockland/Westchester Journal News

GARNERVILLE - A controversial plan to convert a single-family home to an Orthodox Jewish synagogue was dealt a serious blow Wednesday night when the town Planning Board voted 3-2 to reject the measure.

The proposed placement has brought criticism of favoritism from opponents and raised the specter of a challenge by the applicant K'hal Bnei Torah under the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, or RLUIPA, if it were rejected.

After the vote a surprise to many of the 70 or so who attended in person town land-use attorney Christie Addono sat quietly, with her head in her hands. The resolution she had read before the vote referenced RLUIPA seven times in explaining why the board would vote to approve the plan.

Planning board members Joseph Michalak, Glenn Widmer and Robert Sombrado voted no. Chairman Sal Corallo and Anthony Gizzi voted in favor.

"Finally, our Planning Board is standing up," said Maddalena Harper of Pomona.

Irwin Neiderman, who lives a few blocks away from the proposed synagogue, was surprised by the board's rejection. But he said it was the right call.

"I don't deny their religious freedom," he said of the synagogue's members. "I'm a Jewish guy ... The people of North Rockland, we've always been diversified."

Supporters, including members of the synagogue, said they want to place of worship that's safe for them to walk to and from on the Sabbath, and that a neighborhood facility fits the needs of their religious life.

The congregation's lawyer, Ira Emanuel, has repeatedly explained the needs at land-use board meetings, while also making clear that such religious uses are protected under local, state and federal law, including RLUIPA.

Emanuel said on Thursday that he and his clients were "evaluating the situation." He declined further comment.

The plan, one of the first such house-to-shul conversions proposed in the town, has drawn criticism from neighbors.

Speakers at the nine public hearings over the last year had said the town denied local homeowners even the slightest variance for building into an expanse conservation easement that wraps the neighborhood, but were allowing the synagogue to more than double the size of the building with a 107-person occupancy; construct a 27-space parking lot; and place a retaining wall into conservation land.

Niederman said he had been fined $200 a couple years ago for taking down four dead trees in the conservation easement near his home so he wanted the rules applied fairly.

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Variances for the changes to the property, including the use of the conservation easement, were approved at a July 13 Zoning Board of Appeals meeting that drew an overflow crowd.

Many complained that town officials failed to amplify the July 13 proceedings, even though they had been warned about a large turnout. For Wednesday's Planning Board session, loudspeakers placed in Town Hall, outside the meeting room.

The project gained national attention after a speaker spewed antisemitic threats during a Nov. 10, 2021, Planning Board meeting. After saying that members of the Orthodox Jewish community walk in the street there are no sidewalks in the neighborhood and don't wear reflectors at night, Riverglen resident Nick Colella told the Planning Board that if he were to hit them with his vehicle, he would of course back over them again.

The governor and state Attorney General condemned the comments. Haverstraw police and the Rockland District Attorney had said they were investigating but no charges have been filed. Supervisor Howard Phillips has said Colella is banned from Town Hall.

Michael Miller of Chestnut Ridge was at the November 2021 meeting and said he was taken aback by the comments, which he called "ignorant." Miller is a founder of CUPON, or Citizens United to Protect Our Neighborhoods, which has been active in Ramapo, Bergen County and other areas concerned about overdevelopment.

Haverstraw residents have since formed their own CUPON, which several said was raising funds for a legal challenge if the synagogue was approved.

As more Orthodox Jewish families have moved into the area, commerce along nearby Route 202 has also seen a shift. Evergreen, a kosher supermarket, opened its second Rockland location at Pacesetter Plaza along the Ramapo-Haverstraw border. Fast-casual kosher eateries have popped up along the corridor.

In a hot real estate market, the single-family homes sell quickly and often above asking price.

CUPON's Miller has said the issue is unbridled growth,notthe Orthodox and Hasidic Jewish residents there.

But the harbinger of overdevelopment is considered Ramapo, where rapid development in certain areas of town too often has gone unchecked and community resources including the East Ramapo school district are strained by the fallout.

"This all boils down to the local governments and what they will allow," Miller said.

Harper said the synagogue plan showed the strain of RLUIPA on municipalities, and called for its repeal.

A federal law since 2000, RLUIPA was designed to protect religious organizations from land-use regulations would place a "substantial burden" on their rights. It has been called a shield to protect religious freedom.

Many municipalities, including many in the Hudson Valley, have argued RLUIPA is used as a sword, held up to localities as a threat of litigation to allow higher density zoning and permit houses of worship and schools in neighborhoods.

Addona, in reading the resolution before the vote, referenced RLUIPA's remedial purpose and effect for any applicant who could face hurdles to the free exercise of religion.

The resolution, as Addona read, also warned that a challenge under RLUIPA could result in significant monetary penalties to the town "which would be the burden of the taxpayers."The resolution also states that courts have rejected the idea of reverse discrimination or weaponization of RLUIPA.

Emanuel, a land-use attorney in Rockland for decades, has made similar assertions.

"Under both state law and federal law," he said in a recent interview, "if something in land use process that tends to inhibit or prohibit a religious use, a municipality must find a solution."

Nancy Cutler writes about People & Policy. Clickherefor her latest stories. Follow her on Twitter at@nancyrockland.

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Synagogue plan rejected in Haverstraw; RLUIPA litigation threat looms - The Journal News

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