“A grassroots organization has hit the village with its second legal action looking to block a law that allows residential houses of worship across the community.
In a federal action, Citizens United to Protect our Neighborhoods, known as CUPON, and several residents claim the Board of Trustees violated the constitutional rights of secular residents by using land-use regulations to provide exclusively for the religious needs of Orthodox and Hasidic Jewish residents.
The request for an injunction claims officials adopted a proposal largely drafted by the Orthodox Jewish Coalition of Chestnut Ridge.
“The OJC Zoning Law completely changes the character of Chestnut Ridge,” CUPON argues in its legal action. “Under the OJC Zoning Law, nearly the entire Village of Chestnut Ridge is now preemptively zoned for religious use. In enacting the law, the village affirmatively acted to give religious uses a preferred status.”
The legal action filed April 18 asks a federal judge to block implementation of the law adopted in February by a 5-0 vote of the Board of Trustees. The law became a campaign issue, as two trustees won election in March with the Orthodox and Hasidic Jewish vote behind them.
The action was brought by the village’s chapter of CUPON, and Hilda Kogut, the local CUPON leader, and two other longtime residents, Robert Asselbergs and Carole Goodman.
Chestnut Ridge now faces three legal actions involving its zoning code:
- CUPON filed a state actionin March seeking to block the law on the grounds officials didn’t adequately review the environmental impacts of houses of worship on neighborhoods and residents. The Article 78 action claims the village failed to evaluate the impacts on parking, storm-water management, traffic issues, pedestrian safety, community character, emergency responses, and compatibility with existing land uses.
- The OJC and several congregations, before the law won adoption in February, filed a preemptive federal lawsuit in late January accusing Chestnut Ridge of discrimination. They argued the village created “onerous zoning requirements” in violation of federal and state constitutional laws that essentially blocked houses of worship and leaves approval up to the discretion of the Board of Trustees and village land-use boards. The lawsuit remains even after the village adopted the law allowing synagogues in residential houses.
Similar acrimony between religious and secular residents and governments continues in the Ramapo villages of Airmont and Pomona, where the growing Orthodox and Hasidic communities are growing and bring in the needs for private schools and synagogues.
Chestnut Ridge CUPON’s recent federal lawsuit accuses the village of violating the First Amendment and 14th Amendment violation of equal protection and due process for instituting a zoning law that targets religious uses with special favorable treatment over secular uses.
The legal action counters the village’s claim that the law was needed to meet the constitutional freedom of religion requirements and the federal Religious Land Use and Institutional Persons Act, known as RLUIPA.
CUPON issued a paper arguing RLUIPA isn’t relevant during the debate on the law.
“To the contrary, RLUIPA shall not be construed to affect, interpret, or in any way address that portion of the First Amendment to the Constitution prohibiting laws respecting an establishment of religion,” the CUPON legal action states.
CUPON opposed the zoning addition for houses of worship when officials publicly proposed the law in February 2018. CUPON says village officials began working with OJC in August 2017, later updating the proposal through several public hearings, a few of which drew up to 700 people.
The board adopted a three-tiered system that includes:
- Residential houses of worship where a religious leader would live and could hold services for up to 49 people based on the local zoning code. The house would have to meet fire codes and get planning approvals.
- Neighborhood houses of worship without living areas would require more parking and buffers, planning board and zoning board variances. The allowable attendance would depend on the size of the house, but could top 100 people.
- Community worship houses on five acres, needing special permit, planning and zoning approvals.
CUPON argued the prior system of a five-acre property with possibilities for variances had worked when it came to house of worship and the new zoning was not needed. The Board of Trustees had to adopted a special permit.
Under the original zoning when the village formed in 1986, the legal action said Chestnut Ridge had houses of worship. Those included both formal and informal synagogues, a mosque, and Christian churches of various denominations.
CUPON leader Hilda Kogut said the newly adopted law almost automatically zones the village for houses of worship.
“These can be buildings that dwarf the houses beside them, and they can be built on small lots,” she said.
Kogut said the village has not done anything to ensure that these new buildings won’t have a materially adverse impact on the village in terms of environmental concerns, traffic and noise, and related quality of life issues.
“The Village Board pushed through the law to satisfy one religious group and in so doing, ignored everyone else,” she said. “I strongly believe in people’s right to practice their religions. However, that does not mean that religion should be allowed to take over a village or that a village should favor one religious practice over all others and favor religion over non- religious uses.”
CUPON, in its legal action, advocated the village research and approve a comprehensive zoning plan that considered the needs of all village residents and landowners. The group urged that zoning amendments not favor one religious group over another and not favor religious use over secular use, as the Constitution requires, the legal action states.”
Read the full text of The Journal News coverage of the story here.