Rockland County village rolls back “discriminatory” zoning

Dept. of Justice alleged zoning code unfairly burdened Jewish residents

The village of Airmont will stop enforcing zoning provisions which the Department of Justice alleges discriminate against Jewish residents.(Airmont)
The village of Airmont will stop enforcing zoning provisions which the Department of Justice alleges discriminate against Jewish residents.(Airmont)

Authorities in the village of Airmont, New York, will stop enforcing zoning provisions that the Department of Justice alleges discriminate against the village’s Orthodox Jewish residents.

An injunction entered this week by a judge in the Southern District of New York requires that property owners be allowed to build communal places of worship (such as home synagogues) as-of-right in all residential districts.

The DOJ filed its suit against Airmont at the end of 2020, alleging at the time that the village “enforc[ed] its zoning code in a discriminatory manner to prevent Orthodox Jews from using their property consistent with their faith.” It followed 2018 case brought by three Hasidic congregations alleging religious discrimination, after plans filed by several rabbis to build home synagogues were denied by the village’s Building Department.

“We appreciate Airmont’s willingness to agree to cease enforcement of its discriminatory zoning code restrictions pending final resolution of this matter,” U.S. Attorney Audrey Strauss said in a statement.

The injunction stops an “arbitrary, drawn-out application process designed to delay and effectively deny” minor alterations to homes, according to the DOJ.

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A lawyer representing the village, located in Rockland County, disputed the allegations, and downplayed the significance of the new court order.

“Freedom of religion doesn’t trump building safety codes,” said Brian Sokoloff of the law firm Sokoloff Stern, noting that the court order still requires Airmont to review and approve plans for constructing residential places of worship.

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All plans for residential places of worship measuring 1,400 square feet or smaller must now be reviewed on an expedited basis without a public hearing, according to the order from Judge Nelson S. Román. Plans for structures larger than 1,400 square feet will be subject to the village’s 1997 zoning code, which governed residential regulatory approval prior to the allegedly discriminatory rules put in place in 2018.

The DOJ alleged that the more recent zoning code aimed to stop Jewish residents from building synagogues in their homes, which in turn would discourage them from moving to Airmont.

The court order also requires Airmont protect the right of residential worship per a 1996 decision by the Southern District of New York, after a jury found the village had discriminated against Orthodox Jewish residents.

Airmont’s attorney in the case said the DOJ is using “propaganda tactics” to unfairly characterize the village.

“The government of Airmont has no problem whatsoever with people worshipping in their homes,” said Sokoloff. “Airmont provided oversight to make sure people’s safety is protected if a residence changed to a more intense use,” such as a gathering place for religious ceremonies.

Gary Siepser, CEO of the Jewish Federation & Foundation of Rockland County, said he was not aware of any members being subject to unfair zoning policies, and expressed confidence that local and federal authorities would arrive at an amicable solution.

The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which passed in 2000, allows the Department of Justice to act against local governments that regulate land use to place a undue burden on religious exercise, or discriminate on the basis of religion.

Even during the pandemic, when mass gatherings were discouraged to prevent spreading the coronavirus, courts have upheld the free exercise of religion. In October, Jewish and Catholic organizations sued Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration for restricting religious institutions but not secular businesses.