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UNITED STATES v. VILLAGE OF AIRMONT

December 15, 1993

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff,
v.
VILLAGE OF AIRMONT, AIRMONT CIVIC ASSOCIATION, RALPH BRACCO, in his capacity as Mayor of the Village of Airmont, JOHN LAYNE, RAYMOND KANE, CHARLES CALOTTA and RONALD SABO, in their capacities as trustees of the Village of Airmont, Defendants.


GOETTEL


The opinion of the court was delivered by: GERARD L. GOETTEL

This action, brought by the Government under the Fair Housing Act, Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 as amended, 42 U.S.C. §§ 3601 et seq., concerns allegations of anti-Semitism and discrimination against Orthodox and Hasidic *fn1" Jews. To understand aspects of this decision, some discussion of Judaism, its divisions and practices, is necessary.

 Orthodox Judaism

 Judaism is a very old religion. Its practices go back thousands of years. These practices include several worship services during the Jewish Sabbath (called the Shabbos in Yiddish) which commences an hour before sundown on Friday and ends with sundown on Saturday. In order for Jews to pray, they must have a "minyan," a group of ten adult males, although sometimes a youth can be substituted. *fn2" During the Sabbath, there are a number of restrictions on what Orthodox Jews can do. Most pertinent to this case is a prohibition against riding in a vehicle. Orthodox Judaism also imposes strict and complicated dietary laws, requirements concerning dress and hair style for men, and the need to eat only Kosher food. Furthermore, Orthodox Jews often have a strong desire, whenever possible, to educate their children in parochial Jewish schools known as Yeshivas.

 Those Jews who follow these ancient and, at least in modern times, inconvenient, practices are referred to as "Orthodox." Within Orthodox Judaism, there are certain sects which may be considered "ultra Orthodox." Most common among these are the Hasidics. Hasidics are known for their distinctive dress style. Although the nature of their dress suggests an ancient origin, in fact, Hasidism developed only a couple of hundred years ago in Poland. While Hasidic dress and liturgy differs from that of Orthodox Jews, the major difference between Hasidics and the Orthodox appears to lie in the position of the Rabbi. An Orthodox Rabbi is engaged by a congregation which retains the power to discharge him. He is a teacher and a spiritual leader, but exercises no direct secular control over his congregation. By contrast, in Hasidic sects, there is a "Grand Rabbi," a position which in some circumstances seems to be family dominated or hereditary. The Grand Rabbi exercises substantially more control over his congregation than an Orthodox Rabbi.

 In the United States, most religious Jews are not Orthodox. They attend either Conservative or Reform temples. So far as the evidence indicated, there is no difference in the religious beliefs of these groups from the Orthodox. However, there are substantial differences with respect to practices and many of the practices of the Orthodox mentioned earlier are not followed by Reform and Conservative Jews. Orthodox witnesses in this case referred to the Conservatives and Reform Jews as "not observant" and "as assimilated." *fn3"

 The Orthodox religious practices referred to above seem to be at least as applicable to the Hasidic. The observation of many of these practices is dependent upon the location of other Orthodox Jews and kosher stores and schools in the community. A large urban area will usually have a sufficiently dense population that, although Orthodox are a very distinct minority group, there will often be sufficient numbers to support a synagogue and related institutions and facilities. In rural and suburban areas, however, where the population density is much lower, numbers can be a problem. There consequently seems to be a tendency for the Orthodox, and in particular the Hasidics, to congregate in communities where their percentage of the population is relatively great.

 Ramapo

 One of these Orthodox/Hasidic centers is the Town of Ramapo in Rockland County. Rockland County may be the smallest county in New York State, but it appears that Ramapo is geographically its largest town. *fn4" The Town of Ramapo has had a divisive history. Twelve villages have broken away from the Town and incorporated themselves within its borders. *fn5" Six of these villages broke away during the 1980's. Much of this disenchantment with the Town had to do with its zoning and lack of enforcement thereof. The two last villages to be formed were the Village of Kaser, an exclusively Orthodox/Hasidic village, and the Village of Airmont, which is one of the defendants in this action.

 The major zoning problem in Ramapo was multiple-family housing in areas zoned for single family residences. These violations were purportedly common throughout the 1980's and related mostly to the Hasidic population. *fn6" On October 18, 1986, the Town of Ramapo rezoned to create a multiple-family housing zone in the central Monsey area.

 Another zoning problem developed in the Town during the mid 1980's, when the Town, which had always had a substantial Jewish population, experienced a dramatic increase in the number of Orthodox and Hasidic residents. Numerous small "shteebles" were formed as places of worship in Rabbis' homes without obtaining a certificate of occupancy or any zoning approval. Nearby residents complained about their operation. The Town was under substantial pressure to legitimize the operation of these shteebles. Rather than face the problem directly, the Ramapo Town government decided that a political expedient would be to interpret its existing exception to the zoning laws for home professional offices to allow a clergyman to regularly conduct religious services in his home as an accessory use. This interpretation of the zoning code was not popular with those non-Orthodox residents living near them.

 There appear to be several reasons for the popularity of shteebles. One is that, since the Orthodox cannot ride on the Sabbath, they prefer having their place of worship as near to their homes as possible. However, even in instances where a traditional free-standing synagogue (or "shul") is within reasonable walking distance, the congregants of a particular rabbi often prefer continuing to worship with him at his home. Also, the cost per congregant is less to support a shteeble than a shul.

 Airmont Civic Association

 The Airmont Civic Association ("Civic Association") was formed about 1983 by James Filenbaum, a local attorney, who was interested in being Mayor of the Village of Airmont should it be formed. While the Civic Association had other mundane interests, it began supporting the village movement about 1984. However, in that same year Filenbaum decided to run for office in the Town of Ramapo, and the Civic Association became inactive for a couple of years.

 In mid-1986, Jill Tucci and several other women who were members of the Island Lake Swim Club, became dissatisfied with the services they received from the Town of Ramapo. They met informally to discuss the formation of a civic group. Filenbaum, who had lost his bid for public office in the Town, also attended. When the women indicated interest in forming a civic association, Filenbaum told them he already had one and, indeed, was the President of it. During 1986, this group met informally and started supporting the formation of the Village of Airmont. Around the same time, Maureen Kendrick (formerly a defendant in this action in her capacity as Mayor of Airmont) and her cousin, defendant John Layne, became members. The following year, defendant Raymond Kane also joined the Civic Association, and the small core group came to include Stan Dublet, Gay Caroll, Paul Berliner, and Marianne Cucolo.

 During 1986, while Ramapo was changing its zoning laws to allow more multiple-family housing in nearby central Monsey, various Civic Association members circulated petitions for the incorporation of a village. Filenbaum continued as President of the Civic Association until February 11, 1988, when he was replaced by Maureen Kendrick. During this period of time, besides assisting the village formation, the Civic Association participated in a number of other local affairs regarding such issues as a senior citizen complex, traffic flow on Route 59, drainage problems, waste collection, a home for the disabled, and utilization of a closed school.

 The Village of Airmont

 One of the prime reasons for the Civic Association's desire to form a village was the power of villages to create and interpret their own zoning code pursuant to New York Village Law § 7-700 et seq. On April 16, 1987, petitions to incorporate the Village were approved at a public hearing in the Town of Ramapo. No opposition was voiced at the hearing. However, a month later an Orthodox resident and real estate developer named Lefkowitz brought an Article 78 petition challenging, on technical grounds, the adequacy of the petition to incorporate. Although the challenge was not successful, by virtue of its filing and the taking of appeals, Lefkowitz prevented the Village from going into operation for a couple of years.

 When the Lefkowitz litigation was finally terminated, the formation of the Village was put to a vote by referendum, which occurred on January 30, 1989. Although some residents opposed the Village as adding an additional layer of bureaucracy and taxes, and most of the few Orthodox residents apparently voted against it, the referendum nevertheless succeeded by a three to one margin. Again, however, the Village was stymied by another Article 78 proceeding challenging the manner in which the referendum was conducted. This was brought by Mayer Schreiber, an Orthodox real estate developer and the contractor for the Friedman synagogue expansion which is discussed infra. The litigation was supported by various persons who subsequently became plaintiffs in the private ligitation also described infra. The proceeding was ultimately dismissed when it developed that Schreiber lacked standing since he was not a registered voter. *fn8" Nevertheless, with appeals, the litigation prevented the Village from accomplishing the ministerial acts, which would commence its operation, for a period of almost two and a half years.

 The Formation of Orthodox Congregations in Northeast Airmont

 In the fall of 1986, a real estate developer named Michael Tauber purchased property in the northeast area of what is now Airmont and filed plot plans for two sections that later became known as Park Avenue Estates and Joy Acres. This occurred at about the same time as the Town of Ramapo changed its zoning laws to permit a zone for multiple-family housing a little north of the area that subsequently became Airmont. He advertised his development in Orthodox Jewish publications in New York as the construction of a "Torah Community." However, actual construction of houses did not commence for another year or two. During that period of time, another developer purchased property slightly to the south of Park Avenue Estates and Joy Acres which has never been developed. During 1988 and the first half of 1989, Orthodox and Hasidic Jews who later became plaintiffs in a private plaintiffs' suit (hereafter referred to as the "Sternberg litigation") all bought houses and moved into the first section of the Tauber development called Park Avenue Estates. The early residents walked a mile or more to a home synagogue north of the New York Thruway. They told similar stories of harrassment of an anti-semitic nature during their walk from passing anonymous motorists. *fn9"

 During the latter part of 1989, Rabbi Yitzchok Leblanc-Sternberg (who is Hasidic) organized a congregation of Orthodox Jews in the Park Avenue Estates area. He thereafter made application to the Town of Ramapo to use his home as a house of worship pursuant to the Ramapo interpretation of a clergyman's use of a home professional office. This application came on to be heard by the Town of Ramapo Planning Board on November 2, 1989. A heated hearing was conducted with a number of Airmont residents arguing against granting the application and a number of the rabbi's congregants arguing in favor of it. Among those who spoke against the application were Robert Fletcher and Maureen Kendrick. (Kendrick lived quite close to Park Avenue Estates.) The Planning Board initially rejected the application but then granted it upon Rabbi Sternberg's acceptance of a 40 person limitation on the number of congregants. (He and his attorney were not pleased with this limitation but felt it was the best they could do at the time, under the circumstances.)

 Shortly after Planning Board approval, defendant Raymond Kane and other members of the Civic Association met with Town of Ramapo officials to object to the home professional office interpretation that could allow as many as 40 congregants to assemble regularly at a home. The Ramapo officials claimed that this interpretation was supported by legislative intent but were unable to provide any written legislative history in that regard. Leaders of the Civic Association argued that applications of this sort should not be considered by the Town but should be withheld for consideration by the Village of Airmont once it was allowed to commence operations.

 On the same night that the Sternberg application was heard, Rabbi Chaim Friedman also made a preliminary application for a zoning variance. His congregation lived slightly to the west of Park Avenue Estates and Joy Acres and was comprised of a small group of Orthodox Jews who had had difficulty in obtaining a permanent rabbi. They had been congregating in various homes and moving their place of worship every month or so. The congregation had attracted Friedman to come up from Brooklyn with the promise that they would support the building of a synagogue. The synagogue which Friedman planned was to be built as an adjunct to his home, but because it was to be a fairly substantial structure, it was not being submitted under the home professional office exception. The Ramapo zoning code provides that free standing houses of worship in that area must be built on lots of two acres. However, Friedman's plans were for a piece of property that was slightly below two acres and required a number of other bulk zoning variances.

 In this regard, it is worth noting that a few months earlier the Ramapo Zoning Board of Appeals had approved the establishment of a house of worship for 120 congregants in a residential area on a lot of only two-thirds of an acre in an area a couple of miles north of the New York Thruway. That application was bitterly opposed by the residents of that area, none of whom came from Airmont or belonged to the Civic Association. Despite their opposition, the application was approved and the synagogue was built. A next door neighbor to the synagogue testified at some length concerning the disruptions and unpleasantness caused by having the synagogue next door, indicating that it was not so much the worship services on ...


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