Woodcliff Lake, a town in northern New Jersey, denied in a court filing that for years it illegally blocked an Orthodox Jewish group seeking to expand its house of worship or buy property to build a new one.
The U.S. attorney’s office filed a federal lawsuit in June against Woodcliff Lake, which is about 20 miles northwest of New York City.
The lawsuit alleges the town modified zoning laws to block Valley Chabad from buying property and improperly rejected the group’s numerous requests for zoning modifications so it could expand its existing facility.
In a court filing Tuesday, the town denied the charges and contended that the Chabad’s plans failed to meet zoning requirements governing houses of worship.
These include “a minimum lot size of three acres, one parking space for every three seats, one space for each staff member, a 400-foot-wide lot as well as other requirements regarding building setbacks, building height and surface coverage.”
Variances sought by the group to modify its existing facility “departed from conditions required for houses of worship and proposed deviations from generally acceptable zoning ordinances,” the town’s attorneys wrote.
The federal lawsuit claims that Valley Chabad’s predecessor entered into a contract to buy a 3.89-acre property in 2006 but canceled the contract after a town council member expressed interest in the town’s buying the property through eminent domain.
In Tuesday’s response, the town claimed the group “punctured an oil tank and contaminated the property,” precipitating a dispute before the contract was canceled. The town admitted buying the property three years later to use as open space.
The Woodcliff Lake suit is far from the only recent court action involving religious groups in New Jersey.
Last year, the town of Bernards agreed to pay $3.25 million to a group whose plan to build a mosque it had rejected over several years, and Bridgewater Township settled a lawsuit with an Islamic center for nearly $8 million after a four-year legal battle.
The city of Bayonne approved a Muslim group’s plans to build a mosque this year after a lawsuit charged the group was the target of hate-filled attacks.
The U.S. attorney’s office sued the town of Mahwah last year, alleging that it used local ordinances to discriminate against Orthodox Jews from nearby Rockland County, New York. A settlement conference in that lawsuit is scheduled for the end of August.
Woodcliff Lake is also just over the New Jersey border from Rockland County, where towns such as Monsey and Airmont have concentrations of Orthodox Jews
In the early 2000s, the Woodcliff Lake lawsuit alleges, Rabbi Dov Drizin was asked by a borough official for a letter “that would explain how Valley Chabad differed from the religious community in Monsey.”