Town of Haverstraw Sued for Denying Shul Construction

By Reuvain Borchardt

Site of the proposed shul at 62 Riverglen Drive in the town of Haverstraw, N.Y.

A group of Jews seeking to build a shul in the upstate New York town of Haverstraw are suing the town, its Planning Board and three Planning Board members who, the suit alleges, “succumbed to toxic anti-Semitic rhetoric from an angry group” of residents in denying the group permission to build a shul.

The plaintiff, K’hal Bnei Torah, were seeking to convert a single-family home to a shul in Mount Ivy, a neighborhood in Haverstraw, a town that approximately 300 Orthodox Jews have moved into during the last five years, located five miles from heavily-Orthodox Monsey.

According to the lawsuit, the congregation was required to add additional parking, retaining walls and related improvements, and worked with the town Planning Board to comply with all requirements – even reducing the size of the proposed shul from 200 seats to 107 seats, “in response to concerns raised by the board and the town’s consultants in planning sessions.”

The congregation planned to create a parking lot in an area that required a conservation easement due to environmental conditions.

According to the lawsuit:  the Planning Board initially indicated support for the easement as the conservation area “no longer served its intended function”; the Zoning Board of Appeals unanimously granted all variances necessary for the construction to go forward, related to conditions on the property and its conversion to a house of worship; the Planning Board declared last June, by a 4-1 vote, that the shul’s construction plan “will not result in any significant adverse environmental impacts”; and the Planning Board’s attorney “drafted a proposed resolution granting final site plan approval to the project.”

However, at the Planning Board meeting last August, the proposed resolution to allow the plan to go forward failed by a 3-2 margin; two of the “no” votes had voted in June that the shul would not have an adverse environmental impact.

According to the Journal News, “the vote was clearly a surprise” even to “the town’s land-use attorney, Christie Addono, who was seen sitting at the dais with her head in her hands.”

The plaintiff alleges the Planning Board voted against the resolution due to pressure from residents who had showed up to Board meetings at which the plan was discussed.

“Opposition to the influx of Orthodox Jews into Haverstraw permeated and overshadowed all discussions at the public hearing sessions,” the lawsuit says.

One particular meeting last November made headlines when a resident fantasized about running his car over Jews.

At the meeting, a town resident, who identified himself as Nick Colella and lives across the street from the proposed shul, got up to speak, and began sharply criticizing the shul and the community.

 “Even though there are sidewalks in the neighborhood, right, a certain sect of people that walk in the street,” Colella said. (Some portions of the neighborhood in fact have no sidewalks.)

Colella continued. “And nobody’s wearing any reflective gear. So if I run one of them over, and of course I’m going to back over them again … ” Colella was then ordered away from the lectern by the board chairman, but some of the assembled town members yelled in Colella’s defense.

The comments, seen on viral video, drew condemnation from officials including Gov. Kathy Hochul and Sen. Charles Schumer.

The congregation says that residents who opposed the shul complained about it increasing pedestrian traffic, and that it should instead be located in a commercial area. But Sabbath laws forbid driving, necessitating shuls in in residential areas.

The federal lawsuit alleges violations of U.S. and New York Constitutions’ rights to freedom of religion, due process and equal protection; and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which prohibits government from applying a land use regulation “in a manner that imposes a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person or institution” and where there are no adequate alternatives.

This is the latest RLUIPA-related case that has arisen in various towns in upstate New York and in New Jersey, as Orthodox Jews have moved into the towns for the first time.

Typically, the cases arise after the towns deny the Jews permits to erect an eruv, a school or a shul. The town leaders, and the residents who support them, refuse these permits on the grounds that they violate local laws — and sometimes the towns enact new zoning laws as Orthodox populations grow. More broadly, some residents complain that allowing increased construction would lead to overdevelopment and change the suburban nature of the areas. But the Orthodox communities allege that the residents are engaging in thinly veiled, or at times overt, antisemitic rhetoric and actions, passing and enforcing laws that serve to restrict Orthodox growth.

In nearly all these suits, the Orthodox communities have either won or received favorable settlements, but often only after protracted and acrimonious legal battles.

K’hal Bnei Torah is seeking that the court order the town to approve construction of  the shul, and give the congregation compensatory and punitive damages and legal fees.

The Town of Haverstraw did not respond to Hamodia’s request for comment on the lawsuit.

The lawsuit is available by clicking here

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