Since December 2014, the Woodcliff Lake Zoning Board of Adjustment has been considering Valley Chabad’s application for variances to construct a three and a half story, 18,550 square foot religious facility on 1.27 acres in a residence zone. The facility will include a temple, social hall and school. A group calling itself Woodcliff Lake Residents for Reasonable Development opposes the application and has campaigned to raise $50,000 to pay for the lawyer and planner it hired. At the July 28, 2015 continued hearing, Chabad’s planner cited the Religious Land Use & Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) in support of the application. Reference to this statute may cause many local governments to cave in to demands of religious groups to avoid a RLUIPA lawsuit. Depending on how the Board decides Chabad’s application (the next hearing is scheduled for September 9), it could find itself defending its actions in court.
Chabad states that the facility is needed to bring all elements of its activities together in one place. Currently, Chabad uses administrative office space in Montvale, holds Hebrew School at a local high school, and hosts larger events at the Hilton Hotel in Woodcliff Lake.. Woodcliff Lake Residents for Reasonable Development have raised a number of the typical NIMBY concerns, including parking, pedestrian safety, traffic congestion, and tree removal. In addition, the opposition group has complained about the scope of the project, including its proposed 25-foot high retaining wall, which it describes as a “fortress.” A photograph of an architect’s rendering of the proposed facility can be viewed here.
In an interesting move at an earlier hearing, the lawyer for the opposition group asked members of the Board to respond to a questionnaire to indicate their relationships with the applicant. Although several members responded that they had some association with Chabad at one point, they were able to render an objective decision. One member, however, chose to recuse himself because he had attended some services in the past. As we previously reported, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled in June 2015 that municipal officials cannot vote on a zoning application for land within 200 feet of the church if they are members of the church, in Grabowsky v. Township of Montclair, 2015 WL 3648741 (2015). It is not clear if the opposition group will somehow attempt to use this decision to further its interests. NorthJersey.com reports on this story.
While the time period that the Board has taken to review the application may appear protracted, it is not surprising given the controversy, level of opposition, and scope of the proposal. Still, local governments reviewing applications of religious groups may wish to review proposed religious uses in a timely fashion, as the Seventh Circuit, in World Outreach Conference Center v. City of Chicago, (7th Cir. 2015), ruled in June 2015 that a two year delay in the granting of required licenses, among other things, could give rise to a RLUIPA substantial burden claim.
Local governments reviewing religious land use proposals may wish to refer to the following resources:
- One (1) Ounce of RLUIPA Prevention by Dwight Merriam
- RLUIPA Defense Tactics by Evan Seeman
- Six Fact Patterns of Substantial Burden in RLUIPA: Lessons for Potential Litigants by Karla Chaffee and Dwight Merriam
- United States Department of Justice Report on the Tenth Anniversary of RLUIPA
- Statement of the United States Department of Justice on the Land Use Provisions of RLUIPA