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Islamic Community Center for Mid Westchester v. City of Yonkers Landmark Preservation Board

United States District Court, S.D. New York

June 28, 2017

ISLAMIC COMMUNITY CENTER FOR MID WESTCHESTER, MOHAMMAD ZUBER NAKADAR, OMAR OCKEH, ARSHAD SHARIFF, SYED KAMAL, ALI NAWAZUDDIN, MOHAMMED SOHAIL, ALI EL-OUSROUTI, FAVZUL KABEER, ISMET JASHARI, and MOHAMMED RAHEEM, Plaintiffs,
v.
CITY OF YONKERS LANDMARK PRESERVATION BOARD; THE CITY OF YONKERS PLANNING BUREAU, aka CITY OF YONKERS PLANNING BOARD; THE CITY OF YONKERS; MAYOR MICHAEL SPANO in his official capacity as Mayor of the City of Yonkers; LIAM J. MCLAUGHLIN, DENNIS SHEPHERD, MIKE BREEN, and JOHN LARKIN in their official capacity as members of the City of Yonkers City Council; and GORDON A. BURROWS, in his official capacity as a District County Legislator in the City of Yonkers, Defendants.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          Vincent L. Briccetti United States District Judge

         Plaintiffs Islamic Community Center for Mid Westchester (“ICCMW”), Mohammad Zuber Nakadar, Omar Ockeh, Arshad Shariff, Syed Kamal, Ali Nawazuddin, Mohammed Zohail, Ali El-Ousrouti, Favzul Kabeer, Ismet Jashari, and Mohammed Raheem bring this action against defendants City of Yonkers Landmark Preservation Board (the “Landmark Preservation Board”); the City of Yonkers Planning Bureau, also known as the City of Yonkers Planning Board (the “Planning Bureau”); the City of Yonkers; Mayor Michael Spano, in his official capacity as Mayor of the City of Yonkers; Liam J. McLaughlin, Dennis Shepherd, Mike Breen, and John Larkin, in their official capacities as members of the City of Yonkers City Council; and Gordon A. Burrows, in his official capacity as a District County Legislator in the City of Yonkers, claiming defendants violated their rights under the United States Constitution; the New York State Constitution; the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”), 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc; the New York Civil Rights Law § 40-c; and the New York Civil Practice Law and Rules, Article 78, N.Y. C.P.L.R. § 7801 et seq., by discriminating against plaintiffs on account of plaintiffs' religious affiliation.

         Before the Court are plaintiffs' motion for a preliminary injunction (Doc. #21), motion to strike certain documents from the record (Doc. #54), and motion for leave to file a supplemental complaint (Doc. #62), and defendants'[1] motion to dismiss to complaint. (Doc. #38).

         For the reasons set forth below, defendants' motion to dismiss is GRANTED and plaintiffs' motions for a preliminary injunction, to strike, and for leave to file a supplemental complaint are DENIED.

         BACKGROUND

         In deciding the pending motions, the Court accepts as true all well-pleaded allegations in the complaint and draws all reasonable inferences in plaintiffs' favor. Except as otherwise noted, the following facts are drawn from the complaint.

         ICCMW is a religious non-profit entity established in 2012 by a group of Muslims in Westchester County to provide religious services for their community. The remaining plaintiffs are Muslim individuals involved in ICCMW, including founding members and board members.

         Defendant City of Yonkers is a City in New York State. The Landmark Preservation Board and the Planning Bureau are governmental agencies of the City of Yonkers. Defendant Spano is the Mayor of the City of Yonkers. Defendants McLaughlin, Shepherd, Breen, and Larkin are Republican members of the City of Yonkers City Counsel. Defendant Burrows is a Republican legislator and minority whip of the Westchester County Board of Legislators.

         Part of ICCMW's mission is to establish a permanent Mosque and Islamic center to serve Muslims residing in the mid-Westchester area. In April 2013, ICCMW identified a property listed for sale at 20 Grandview Boulevard in Colonial Heights neighborhood of Yonkers, which contained a house (the “Property”). ICCMW purchased the Property in March 2015, after some discussion with the City of Yonkers regarding ICCMW's anticipated use of the Property as a Mosque. According to plaintiffs, a “Mosque, such as the one [plaintiffs] wish to build on the Property serves as the cornerstone of Muslim faith and community. It is a place of communal prayer.” (Compl. ¶ 41). A Mosque is “a most critical institution through which Muslims educate themselves and their children in the tenets and practice of Islam. The Mosque serves as the focus for the community's social, education, and recreational activities.” (Compl. ¶ 41).

         On September 19, 2015, ICCMW held an open meeting with the Colonial Heights community and invited residents and area organizations, including the Colonial Heights Association of Tax Payers (“CHAT”). Yonkers officials had previously informed ICCMW that CHAT “had a history [of] opposing projects like ICCMW's.” (Compl. ¶ 54). Some attendees expressed concern about establishing a Mosque on the Property.

         According to plaintiffs, ICCMW and its members have experienced animosity and hostility from the public on various occasions. Examples of such occurrences include having the local police visit the property for undisclosed reasons, finding dog waste near the Property on several occasions, “people looking at [ICCMW's members] suspiciously as they walked by the property, ” “people driving by the [P]roperty menacingly, ” and having “derogatory curse words said to [an ICCMW member] by a stranger driving by the [P]roperty.” (Compl. ¶ 59).

         Plaintiffs allege there became an effort to designate the Property as a landmark pursuant to the City of Yonkers's Historic and Landmark Preservation Law (the “Landmark Law”), City of Yonkers, N.Y. City Code § 45, which was and “is a pretext used to prevent ICCMW, its members and its congregation from building a Mosque.” (Compl. ¶ 72).

         Between June and October 2015, CHAT submitted three applications to the Landmark Preservation Board to have the Property designated as a landmark pursuant to the Landmark Law. CHAT submitted the third application on October 27, 2015, in the form of a supplement to the second application. The Landmark Preservation Board conducted hearings on November 11 and December 2, 2015, to consider CHAT's application. At the December 2 hearing, ICCMW submitted a letter stating CHAT's landmark application was deficient. The Landmark Preservation Board put ICCMW's letter on the record, but did not permit ICCMW to present its position during the hearing. At the hearing, “[t]he Landmark Preservation Board approved CHAT's application as complete and referred it to the Planning Board for an advisory recommendation and advice pursuant to” the Landmark Law. (Compl. ¶ 66). On January 13, 2016, the Planning Board recommended that the Property be designated as a landmark, which imposes burdens and restrictions on the Property. That recommendation included a finding that another house of worship was unnecessary given the presence of other religious institutions in the area.

         On February 3, 2016, the Landmark Preservation Board held the first public hearing on designating the Property as a landmark, at which time members of the public expressed concern about the Property being used as a Mosque. Counsel for ICCMW spoke at the hearing and argued that the Property failed to satisfy Section 45-2 of the Landmark Law, which defines a landmark as a building or parcel of land that “(1) Is associated with persons or events of historic significance; (2) Is illustrative of historic growth and development; (3) Embodies distinctive characteristics of a type, period or method of construction or represents a work of master; [or] (4) Contains unique architectural, archaeological or artistic qualities.” ICCMW members spoke at the hearing about their organization and questioned the public's “sudden interest in the [P]roperty, while for years prior to ICCMW's purchase it was allowed to fall into disrepair.” (Compl. ¶ 71). CHAT supporters booed and interrupted ICCMW's presentation, “trying to bully ICCMW.” (Compl. ¶ 71).

         On April 6, 2016, the Landmark Preservation Board found the Property was “illustrative of growth and development of the city and had unique architectural qualities, ” and recommended the designation of the Property as a landmark. (Compl. ¶ 74). According to plaintiffs, other homes near the Property exhibit similar characteristics illustrative of growth and development, but have not been designated as landmarks.

         On May 17, 2016, the Real Estate Committee of the Yonkers City Council held a public hearing, and CHAT and ICCMW presented their positions regarding the designation of the Property as a landmark. Defendant Larkin, the chair of the committee, limited discussion to the Property and the landmark criteria and “did not allow any discussion or reference of the evident Islamophobia at play.” (Compl. ¶ 92). At the end of the hearing, the Real Estate Committee voted on the designation. By a three-to-two vote divided along party lines, with all Republicans in favor and all Democrats in opposition, the Real Estate Committee approved the designation and recommended the matter to the Rules Committee of the Yonkers City Council. Thereafter, in a four-to-three vote, also divided along party lines, with all Republicans in favor and all Democrats in opposition, the Rules Committee recommended the landmark designation to the entire City Council for approval.

         On May 24, 2016, the Yonkers City Council held a public hearing, at which the council members voted to approve the landmark designation, again along party lines, with all Republicans in favor and all Democrats against. On May 25, 2016, Mayor Spano held a meeting in which he heard from ICCMW and its supporters, who detailed the prior proceedings and the perceived anti-Muslim rhetoric that had been present. Letters were also submitted in opposition to designating the Property as a landmark. On May 27, 2016, Mayor Spano signed Resolution No. 64-2016 (the “Landmark Resolution”), which designated the Property as a landmark.

         Plaintiffs allege “[t]he landmark designation arbitrarily targeted ICCMW.” (Compl. ¶ 103). Plaintiffs further allege the Property's status as a landmark “establishes different standards for [p]laintiffs' proposed and future renovations to the [P]roperty than those that have been applied, and will continue to be applied, to similar proposed land uses” of other property owners. (Compl. ¶ 127). Plaintiffs do not allege any proposed or future renovations, or the process that plaintiffs would have to undergo to allow for such renovations.

         Plaintiffs commenced this action on September 21, 2016. Thereafter, plaintiffs moved for a preliminary injunction declaring the landmark designation void (Doc. #21), defendants moved to dismiss (Doc. #38), and plaintiffs moved to strike certain documents from the record. (Doc. #54).

         On May 1, 2017, plaintiffs moved for leave to file a supplemental complaint, to add a claim of First Amendment retaliation under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and to add the allegations that follow. (Doc. #62).

         Sometime in 2015, ICCMW applied for and received a property tax exemption from the City of Yonkers based on its status as a non-profit religious organization and the Property's use for religious purposes. On November 19, 2016, ICCMW submitted a renewal application for the exemption for the 2017/2018 tax year. On December 5, 2016, ICCMW was granted the exemption. On January 3, 2017, however, the property tax exemption was revoked. On January 26, 2017, ICCMW appealed the revocation.

         On March 27, 2017, plaintiffs attended a hearing before the Board of Assessment Review (the “BAR”), which allegedly “functions under the office of the Mayor of the City of Yonkers.” (Suppl. Compl. ¶ 114). At that hearing, plaintiffs explained their basis for the tax exempt status and responded to all of the BAR's questions. The BAR indicated it had sufficient information. On April 6, the BAR requested supplemental responses from plaintiffs, and plaintiffs allege this was harassment to retaliate against them. On April 13, plaintiffs responded by “rehashing information already in the [BAR]'s possession and knowledge.” (Suppl. Compl. ¶ 116). On April 18, plaintiffs received a letter from defense counsel, which “attempted to force [p]laintiffs to provide information already within [defendants'] possession and addressed by [p]laintiffs at [the] March 27, 2017 hearing.” (Suppl. Compl. ¶ 117). On April 20, 2017, plaintiffs responded by informing defendants they had already provided all relevant information.

         According to defendants' memorandum of law in opposition to plaintiffs' motion for leave to file a supplemental complaint, the BAR issued a final decision on May 11, 2017, sustaining plaintiffs' administrative complaint and upholding the renewal of the Property's tax exempt status.

         DISCUSSION

         I. Plaintiffs' Motion for Leave to File ...


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