A northern New Jersey town has reached an agreement in a federal lawsuit that accused it of illegally denying an Orthodox Jewish group’s attempt to expand its footprint, the U.S. attorney’s office for New Jersey announced Tuesday.
If the agreement is approved by a judge, Woodcliff Lake will allow Valley Chabad to expand its existing property, and will pay the group $1.5 million to settle a separate lawsuit filed by the group against the town.
The U.S. attorney’s office sued Woodcliff Lake in 2018, alleging the town violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act when it blocked Valley Chabad from buying additional property or expanding its existing building.
According to the complaint, Valley Chabad began looking for a larger facility more than 10 years earlier, and twice entered into contracts to purchase property — only to have the town step in and buy the land using eminent domain.
On a third occasion, the suit alleged, the town modified zoning laws so townhomes could be built on a property Valley Chabad was seeking to buy, leading the property’s owner to cancel the contract with Valley Chabad.
The group also alleged the town rejected its numerous requests for zoning modifications to expand its existing property.
Woodcliff Lake denied the allegations and wrote in court filings that the Orthodox group’s plans failed to meet zoning requirements governing houses of worship, such as minimum lot size and parking capacity.
“Through our actions today, we have taken steps to ensure that Valley Chabad and its members will no longer face unlawful barriers in their practice of religion,” U.S. Attorney Craig Carpenito said in a statement Tuesday.
Woodcliff Lake is 20 miles (30 kilometers) northwest of New York City and just over the New Jersey border from Rockland County, New York, where towns such as Monsey and Airmont have concentrations of Orthodox Jews
In the early 2000s, the lawsuit alleged, 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.”
Woodcliff Lake’s goal “is and always has been to engage in sound planning, common sense development, and beneficial environmental practices while fully respecting the constitutional right of religious freedom,” the town said in a statement Tuesday. “The voluntary settlement with Valley Chabad strikes this important balance and provides us with a path forward unencumbered by costly legal action.”