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LEBLANC-STERNBERG v. FLETCHER

May 14, 1991

RABBI YITZCHOK LEBLANC-STERNBERG, CHANIE LEBLANC-STERNBERG, FRED WALFISH, AND LEWIS KAMMAN, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
ROBERT FLETCHER, RAYMOND KANE, ROBERT CHIRKIS, PAUL BERLINER, MAUREEN KENDRICK, ANDREW DE PODWIN, MARIANNA CUCOLO, JOHN C. LAYNE, JOHN MCLAUGHLIN, JANICE STERN, AND NICK VERTULLO, INDIVIDUALLY AND IN THEIR CAPACITY AS OFFICERS AND BOARD MEMBERS OF THE AIRMONT CIVIC ASSOCIATION, PAMELA SCAVERA, THE AIRMONT CIVIC ASSOCIATION, TOWN OF RAMAPO, HERBERT REISMAN, INDIVIDUALLY AND IN HIS CAPACITY AS RAMAPO TOWN SUPERVISOR, AND SYLVIA HERSHKOWITZ, IN HER CAPACITY AS THE TOWN CLERK OF THE TOWN OF RAMAPO, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Goettel, District Judge:

OPINION

I. BACKGROUND

A large portion of the Town of Ramapo is a state park and undeveloped land. In the occupied area, a "village movement" has resulted in the formation of eleven incorporated villages within the town borders along its perimeter.*fn1 An incorporated village controls the tax base within its boundaries and has the authority to execute its own zoning laws, run schools, operate police, fire, water and sewage departments and regulate the use of the streets. As a rule, the boundaries of a village may not exceed five square miles, N Y Village Law § 2-200, subd. 1(a), unless the borders of the village are coterminous with another district, N.Y. Village Law § 2-200 subd. 1(b), (c).

According to plaintiffs, the Orthodox Jewish population in the Town of Ramapo, currently between 22,000 to 26,000 or 23 to 27 percent of the Town's total population, has increased dramatically over the last ten years. Because strict observance of Judaism requires the availability of a large infrastructure, Orthodox Jews tend to dwell in closely knit communities. A large segment of the Orthodox Jewish population resides as a geographically compact minority within the central unincorporated Town where they have been an active and vocal force in Town government. In addition, the populations of at least two of the villages are predominantly Orthodox Jewish. When moving into communities where the population is not Orthodox Jewish, the Orthodox Jews cluster their residences out of necessity.

In 1986, a group of citizens signed a petition to incorporate the Village of Airmont, located in the southeastern area of Ramapo.*fn2 The petition was presented to the Town and Town Supervisor and a public hearing was held on April 1, 1987. Defendant Herbert Reisman, Supervisor of the Town of Ramapo, determined that the petition complied with the requirements of Article 2 of the New York State Village Law and gave his reluctant approval. (The Town is opposed to village incorporations since it diminishes the Town's tax base.) A referendum on the issue of incorporation was scheduled pursuant to N.Y. Village Law § 2-212.

The sufficiency of the petition with respect to the description of the village boundary was challenged in an Article 78 proceeding. On appeal, the court held that, while not conforming to the boundary forms specified in the statute, the metes and bounds contained in the petition described the boundary of the proposed village in a readily ascertainable fashion and was therefore sufficient. Lefkowitz v. Reisman, 144 A.D.2d 465, 534 N.Y.S.2d 2, 4 (2d Dep't 1988), appeal denied, 73 N.Y.2d 704, 537 N.Y.S.2d 492, 534 N.E.2d 330 (1989). The incorporation was approved in a referendum on January 30, 1989, by a vote of 1692 to 601, and another Article 78 proceeding was filed attempting to nullify the results of that election. This attempt failed because the petitioner lacked standing. Schreiber v. Gorman, 561 N.Y.S.2d 815 (2d Dep't 1990).

On April 10, 1991, the Secretary of State signed the certificate of incorporation for the Village. A Village Clerk was appointed on April 15, 1991 and she, in turn, appointed four election officials. On April 23, 1991, the Village Clerk posted and published a notice of election for Village Mayor and for Village Trustees. The notice posted at Town Hall stated that the election would take place on Thursday, May 16, 1991.*fn3 Upon election of the village officials, the village will start to function.

The impetus to incorporate Airmont came from a group of residents who formed the Airmont Civic Association in 1986. Defendants maintain that ACA was formed to advance a number of civic goals, including the promotion of effective zoning administration and enforcement and to implement the incorporation of the Airmont area as a village. ACA has actively opposed the establishment of synagogues in local homes or home offices. There are more than mere hints in the record of anti-Orthodox Jewish sentiments on the part of certain ACA members. However, ACA has been involved in other civic activities such as securing a telephone for a senior citizen complex and objecting to zoning violations committed by a local swim and recreational club.

The plaintiffs in this case are Orthodox Jews, residents since 1987 (which was after the selection of village boundaries) of a development called Park Avenue Estates. Because travel by car on the Sabbath and on holidays is barred by Jewish law, these residents must walk to synagogue for worship. The nearest synagogue is located well over a mile away (outside the Airmont area), but the Park Avenue residents cannot join that congregation because additional membership would take the synagogue above its legal capacity.*fn4

Rabbi Sternberg, one of the plaintiffs, applied to the Ramapo Zoning Board for permission to establish a professional home office where, among other uses, the Orthodox Jewish residents of Park Avenue Estates (consisting of eight families) could gather for Sabbath and holiday services. Such uses are permitted in the Town of Ramapo*fn5 and many such small synagogues exist within the unincorporated Ramapo area.*fn6 ACA opposes a synagogue established in a residence — its position is that such use is not permitted by the Ramapo zoning laws and part of its agenda is devoted to strict enforcement of the Zoning code. Rabbi Sternberg still hopes to establish a synagogue in his home office.

As soon as incorporation papers for Airmont were signed by the Secretary of State, plaintiffs filed their complaint alleging that the establishment of Airmont is illegal because its borders were drawn with an intent to exclude Orthodox Jews through strict zoning laws. The primary relief sought is dissolution of an already incorporated village.

By order to show cause, plaintiffs have brought this motion for a preliminary injunction, attempting to stop the election scheduled for May 16, 1991. Without the election, the Village of Airmont will be unable to begin functioning. Plaintiffs acknowledge that this motion is a back door attempt to stop a village that is already a legal entity.

II. PRELIMINARY ...


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