Houses of worship: Federal judge tosses lawsuit challenging Chestnut Ridge zoning law

houses of worship: federal judge tosses lawsuit challenging chestnut ridge zoning law

Chestnut Ridge Mayor Rosario Sam Presti listens to opponents make one final plea to protest over Places of Worship (POW) law before the Chestnut Ridge Board of Trustees make a decision during board meeting Chestnut Ridge Middle School Feb. 21, 2019.

CHESTNUT RIDGE – The village law permitting residential houses of worship has survived a federal court challenge.

U.S. District Court Judge Nelson Roman on Friday dismissed a lawsuit challenging the three-tiered zoning law filed by the grassroots group Citizens United to Protect Our Neighborhoods and members Hilda Kogut, Robert Asselbergs and Carole Goodman.

They claimed the village violated the Constitution by enacting zoning that favored only the Orthodox Jewish Coalition in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

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Judge’s decision: Federal judge dismisses legal action seeking to annul Chestnut Ridge zoning for houses of worship

Legal action: CUPON slaps Chestnut Ridge with another legal action vs. house of worship law

CUPON: Born amid Ramapo over-development, goes countywide

Roman wrote in his 18-page decision CUPON and the three organization members lacked standing to file a legal action. Roman ruled any financial or social injuries would be speculative from allowing houses of worship in residential neighborhoods.

Roman wrote, “an injury in fact consists of an invasion of a legally protected interest that is concrete and particularized and actual or imminent, not conjectural or hypothetical.

“After careful consideration of the complaint, the court finds that plaintiffs have not pled a concrete and particularized constitutional injury,” Roman wrote. “The law is clear that generalized grievance is insufficient to establish standing. Plaintiffs have not alleged that they sought and were denied any benefits.”

While the Constitution’s First Amendment protects religion and houses of worship from government interference, Roman wrote the lack of standing obliterates the need to decide CUPON’s claim the village violated the constitution. CUPON and the three members had claimed the zoning law “targets religious uses with special favorable treatment over secular uses.”

Roman also noted the issues are also being addressed in CUPON’s state legal action claiming the village violated environmental laws in approving the zoning. The state cases are before the New York State Appellate Division.

What CUPON, village leaders say

Kogut, a retired FBI agent and longtime village resident who heads CUPON-Chestnut Ridge, said Friday the organization’s lawyers, Cozen & O’Connor, would review the judge’s decision before deciding what’s next. CUPON could ask Roman to reconsider or appeal his decision to the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals.

“We’re going to let our attorneys chew this over,” Kogut said. “We need an opportunity to discuss the court decision and determine our next step.”

Chestnut Ridge Mayor Rosario “Sam” Presti said the village was pleased with the decision and the work of the South Nyack-based firm of Feerick Nugent MacCartney. Brian Nugent successfully defended the village of Pomona against an Orthodox Jewish congregation’s legal action seeking to build a rabbinical college without submitting plans to the land use boards.

Presti, an attorney, and other board members have maintained the updated zoning meets constitutional requirements and the regulations under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which gives churches and other religious institutions a way to avoid zoning law restrictions.

“We’re happy with the result,” Presti said, adding the village held three public hearings on the zoning law and all residents got an opportunity to voice their views.

Village Special Counsel Alak Shah, of Feerick Nugent MacCartney, stated “The village, in an effort to bridge the diverging views of its constituents on their preferred exercise of religious rights, consulted experts and professionals to enact its House of Worship Law to provide a legal and regulated path for village residents to exercise those constitutionally protected religious rights.”

Village Trustees Chaim Rose and Shmuli Fromovitz said prior to the 2019 houses of worship law there was no practical way to build a shul or any other type of house of worship in a residential neighborhood. Since the 2019 law there have, so far, been three synagogues approved.

“Upon enactment, both those favoring and opposing the legislation sued the village,” they said in a news release. “The litigation brought by those favoring the village law was dismissed a year ago. Now, this lengthy, well[ reasoned federal court decision dismisses the District Court litigation brought by those opposing the legislation.”

Roman also declined to consider arguments by intervenors − Congregation Birchas Yitzchok, Congregation Dexter Park, Congregation Torah U’tfilla, the Orthodox Jewish Coalition of Chestnut Ridge, and Agudath Israel of America.

Chestnut Ridge adopted house of worship zoning

CUPON opposed the zoning addition for houses of worship when officials publicly proposed the law in February 2018. CUPON claimed village officials began working with the Orthodox Jewish Coalition of Chestnut Ridge, or OJC, in August 2017, later updating the proposal through several public hearings, a few of which drew up to 700 people.

CUPON argued the zoning law would change the character of the village by allowing houses of worship in any neighborhood. The legal action countered the village’s claim 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.

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, and 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 need special permits, and planning and zoning approvals.

CUPON filed a separate state action seeking to block the zoning law on the grounds that 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.

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 bringing in the need for private schools and synagogues.

Steve Lieberman covers government, breaking news, courts, police, and investigations. Reach him at slieberm@lohud.com. Twitter: @lohudlegal.

Read more articles and bio. Our local coverage is only possible with support from our readers.

This article originally appeared on Rockland/Westchester Journal News: Houses of worship: Federal judge tosses lawsuit challenging Chestnut Ridge zoning law

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