The Orthodox Sephardic Congregation Beth Eliyahu applied in 2012 to the Town of North Hempstead Zoning Board of Appeals for variances to construct a religious school for up to 350 students in a vacant commercial building across the street from its other facilities in a residential neighborhood. According to the Board, the Congregation “sought to expand a nonconforming commercial building for use as an educational facility with insufficient off-street parking, insufficient number of loading zones, parking located off-premises, elimination of a required buffer strip and a playground and building addition within a Parking District – not a permitted use.” The Congregation’s proposal included three mini-buses dropping off students in the morning and picking up students in the afternoon, using a staggered schedule to minimize any disruption. The proposed bus drop-off would be 20 feet from an intersection.
Since 2012, the Congregation has faced opposition for its proposed school from a group of villages, residents, and even politicians, raising traffic concerns. In a December 6, 2012 letter to the Board, Nassau County Legislator Judi Bosworth stated:
I take this relatively unusual step of expressing my views publicly with respect to a pending BZA case, because of the detrimental impact that approval of this application is almost certain to have on the quality of life in the residential neighborhoods near the subject property, especially the immediately adjacent Allenwood community.
Bosworth claimed that the Congregation’s alleged failure to identify “pick-up/drop-off” areas for school buses had the potential to create a traffic “nightmare,” as the adjacent streets are inadequate to handle the numerous buses (Read more here). The villages and an association of neighborhood residents called the Allenwood Civic Association funded a traffic study at a cost of approximately $15,000 which detailed their concerns. The Association claims to oppose the proposal “based solely on the safety of the children that would attend the school and the people who live in the neighborhood.
In September 2013, the Board denied the Congregation’s proposal and stated in its decision: “It is unlikely the neighborhood will be able to absorb, without severe disruption, the impacts associated with the introduction of stopped buses and cars.” It also found that the proposal would impede emergency services from accessing an intersection 20 feet away from the proposed school bus drop-off zone.
Last month, the Congregation’s lawyer said that he plans to sue the Board in December 2013 or January 2014 on behalf of the Congregation for violating RLUIPA in denying the school proposal. He stated that there was no rational basis for the Board’s denial and the Board “caved to pressure.” Prior to the Board’s decision, the lawyer bluntly expressed his view of the opposition: “If three minibuses . . . are a traffic problem, I’d like to know what you smoke.”
We will report back once the lawsuit is filed. For now, you can read more here.