The Village of Bloomingburg, NY (Village) and the Town of Mamakating, NY (Town) are facing allegations of religious discrimination in land use regulation. On September 8, 2014, the Bloomingburg Jewish Education Center, Sullivan Farms II, Inc., Learning Tree Properties, LLC and other interested entities and individuals (Plaintiffs) sued the Village and the Town and certain municipal officials under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), the federal Fair Housing Act, the U.S. Constitution, and state law. Plaintiffs allege that the Village and the Town have engaged in an anti-Semitic conspiracy to “stop the Jewish infiltration,” and have prevented Plaintiffs from operating a religious school and planned development unit. The following allegations are taken from Plaintiffs’ complaint.
For more than a year, Plaintiff Learning Tree has been seeking site plan approval to open a private religious school for Hasidic Jews, to be operated by Bloomingburg Jewish Education Center. A religious school is a permitted use in the subject zoning district. The complaint alleges: “The religious school is urgently needed by Hasidic residents, whose religious practices otherwise oblige them to home school their children or send them to parochial schools well outside the area.” Residents opposed the site plan application allegedly to keep Jewish families from moving into the area. The Village’s Planning Board was forced to cancel two of its meetings (August 29, 2013 and September 26, 2013) where it was to consider the site plan application, because hordes of angry residents would not allow the meetings to proceed. Video of the forced cancellations of those meetings can be viewed here and here. The State Police attended the December 12, 2013 meeting to control the crowd, and the Planning Board denied the site plan based in part on its determination that no more schools were needed, even though “need” is not a legitimate consideration for a site plan application regarding a permitted use.
The New York Supreme Court (the trial court in New York) reversed the Planning Board’s decision in May 2014 and ordered the Planning Board to reconsider the site plan application. Rather than comply with the court’s order, the Village dissolved its Planning Board and empowered the Town’s Planning Board to administer the Village Zoning Code, an act that Plaintiffs contend was meant to delay reconsideration of the site plan. Allegedly, the Town’s Planning Board “has deliberately embarked on a wasteful and time-consuming review of the proposed private religious school, ignoring all previous information that Learning Tree and its engineers had provided to the Village Planning Board,” and “has enlisted multiple building consultants and engineers to review the projects.” The school is not able to open in time for the 2014-2015 school year.
Plaintiffs allege that the Village and the Town have undertaken similar efforts to prevent Sullivan Farms from completing development of the fully approved Chestnut Ridge, a 396-unit townhouse project. Although Chestnut Ridge will be open to all persons regardless of faith, Plaintiffs allege that the Village and the Town have prevented additional units from being constructed (48 out of 396 units have been constructed) because they believe many Hasidic Jews will live there. The Village Planning Board granted Sullivan Farms final conditional subdivision approval on June 24, 2010. On January 24, 2014, an opposition group called Rural Community Coalition sued the Village and the Town to enjoin construction of Chestnut Ridge on the theory that the Village’s annexation of the project site from the Town seven years earlier was invalid. Although named as defendants, the Village and Town supported the opposition group’s application for an injunction. In February 2014, the New York State Supreme Court issued a preliminary injunction that was later vacated by the Appellate Division, Third Department on June 5, 2014. One week after the preliminary injunction was vacated, the Village enacted a Village-wide moratorium “suspending the receipt, consideration, or issuance of all residential and commercial building permits in the Village, essentially foreclosing all construction and repair in the Village, including at the fully approved Chestnut Ridge and the private religious school.”
The moratorium – premised on a “hazardous disposal” emergency – lasts 90 days, but can be extended for up to a year. Plaintiffs assert that the purported “health and safety” complaints include allegations that a “Torah was observed being brought into a unit,” that a private residential pool was being used as a mikvah, a Jewish ritual bath, and “that a building appears to be a gathering place. Maybe a shul [synagogue]?”
The Village has scheduled a September 30, 2014 referendum to ask its residents whether the Village should dissolve and cede all jurisdiction to the Town. Plaintiffs claim that the Village “hopes that by dissolving itself, it may undo prior zoning and subdivision approvals for Jewish-owned development projects, cause Plaintiffs further discouragement and delay by impairing their constitutional rights, and wholly avoid its current court-ordered obligations." The September 30 referendum falls during the Jewish High Holy Days, in the 10-day period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Accordingly to Plaintiffs, “Defendants obviously hope that the Orthodox Jews of Bloomingburg will be distracted by their religious observances and therefore will refrain from participating in the referendum vote.”
Plaintiffs assert that the Village’s and the Town’s actions in denying their operation of the school and planned development unit substantially burdens their religious exercise without a compelling government interest and treats them worse than other secular and religious uses, in violation of RLUIPA. Plaintiffs also assert claims under RLUIPA’s “total exclusion” and “unreasonable limitations” provisions. They bring other claims under the Fair Housing Act, the U.S. Constitution, and state law.
Plaintiffs’ 66-page complaint in The Bloomingburg Jewish Education Center v. Village of Bloomingburg, New York (S.D. NY 2014) is available here.