In 2005, the Village of Lawrence (Village) granted permission to Bais Medrash of Harborview Synagogue (Medrash) to construct a synagogue on three contiguous lots.  As part of its approval, Medrash entered a Declaration of Restrictive Covenants, prohibiting weekday services and vehicle traffic on Fridays and Saturdays with the exception of certain Jewish holidays that fell during the week.

Synagogue, Berlin by Will Palmer Some rights reserved

Medrash later sought permission to raze an existing structure on one of the lots, merge all three lots, and construct a parking lot.  It also sought a slight expansion of the synagogue and removal of the restrictive covenant so that it could conduct weekday services. The Village’s Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) granted a variance to expand the synagogue and granted a temporary conditional use permit that removed the weekday service restriction for a one-year “trial period.” The trial period would begin once the Village Board of Trustees granted Medrash’s petition to restrict on-street parking during certain religious services and classes.

Unhappy with the BZA’s decision, Bonnie Septimus, a near-by property owner appealed the decision pursuant to New York Article 78.  On appeal, in Matter of Septimus v Board of Zoning Appeals for the Inc. Vil. of Lawrence, 2015 NY Slip Op 25424 (Dec. 16, 2015), the court found that Spetimus had no standing to challenge the BZA’s authority to issue a temporary conditional use permit, because only Medrash could be arguably injured by its temporary nature.  Next, the court found the BZA’s decision was not arbitrary and capricious and the BZA was not required to find a change in neighborhood circumstances before issuing a decision different from its 2005 Medrash decision.

Additionally, the court recognized that religious applicants are afforded special treatment under New York law when they seek to expand in residential areas, subject to reasonable control by a local zoning authority.  The court also stated “the fact that the prior determination of the BZA prohibited opening the synagogue for weekday services, undisputedly of importance to Orthodox Jewish practitioners, raises the potential application of the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (“RLUIPA”) (42 USC §§ 2000cc)…. [The] federal statute applies, in that the existing restriction on weekday services is a ‘substantial burden’ on ‘religious exercise’ by a ‘religious assembly….’  The Court … also finds that, for purposes of the instant proceeding and RLUIPA, the BZA ruling is the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling governmental interest, maintaining the integrity of an established residential neighborhood.”

Original photo by Will Palmer (some rights reserved)