Airmont and Discrimination Part 1: A Moratorium


The Village of Airmont, situated in Town of Ramapo New York, was the subject of Federal lawsuits over the past 25 years. The Department of Justice in one case and four plaintiffs in a separate case, both in the early 1990’s, accused the village of discriminating against Orthodox Jews regarding houses of worship {Shuls} and Yeshivas.

In one of those cases, a jury found that the Village of Airmont as an entity violated the rights of the plaintiffs, but a Federal judge dismissed the Justice Department lawsuit. Then in 2005, the Department of Justice (DOJ) filed a new lawsuit against Airmont alleged that the Village wrongly blocked a yeshiva from building a dormitory and a housing complex. After years of costly litigation, the village agreed in 2011 to settle the lawsuit.

The settlement was contingent that Airmont will by October 15, 2011 “amend its zoning code to comply with Federal law prohibiting discrimination and an unreasonable imposition on religious freedom.” The Village adopted the new code in September 2011, but five years later the Village was revisiting the topic.

A Proposed Building Moratorium

One of the topics outlined for the Village Board of Trustees’ meeting for September 19, 2016, was a moratorium that during its duration “no development approval shall be granted in the Village of Airmont.” As per the Village website, the moratorium would be active until there can be a “reviewing and recommending [of] changes to the Comprehensive Master Plan adopted in September 19, 2011, along with the Village zoning code.”

The need for this moratorium seemed strange because Airmont was one of many Ramapo areas incorporated as villages in the 1980’s and 1990’s to have more control on its zoning and building laws which until then was decided by the Town seen accommodating to the Orthodox Jewish community. Due to being incorporated, there was no “over-development” going on. In fact, when the moratorium was first proposed at the September 2016 meeting, there were only nine commercial zone applications and six residential zone applications that were open either at the Community Design Review Committee (CDRC) or at the Planning Board. Most of those applications did not include zoning changes and many of them did not include any building extension plans either. Regardless, a discussion for a moratorium was set for the meeting.

At the start of the meeting, the mayor read out loud a letter from the Village Planning Board member Anthony Santucci which listed some commercial zone building applications by name. Then the letter read that “we also have an ever-increasing number of applications for yeshivas, home houses of worship and other projects.” Zoning Board member Laurie DiFrancesco and then-Zoning Board of Appeals member Peter Blunnie, who is now a Village Trustee, both mentioned houses of worship as a part of the reason to impose a moratorium until the Village comes up with a comprehensive master plan. Ms. DiFrancesco in fact mentioned parking issues associated with houses of worship. A fair concern to be addressed and in general it appeared at that meeting that Ms. DiFrancesco was looking for a productive outcome, but the parking issue is relevant largely only in residential zones not in commercial zones where there is usually ample parking.

Mr. Blunnie’s statement went further than houses of worships saying, “I believe in the moratorium because we have to decide who we are as a village; what we want to be when we grow up and how we want to grow as a village.” The last point – ‘how we want to grow’ – is a fair conversation to have but ‘who we are and what we want to be when we grow up’ seems strange especially that the look of the village did not change much since its founding except for the influx of Orthodox Jews over the last ten years. (See the video below for all of the above comments.)

Gaps in the Moratorium

Openly creating a moratorium to slow down houses of worship would be a dead giveaway of discrimination. This is perhaps why the above letter listed building projects in commercial zones too; to pretend that projects in commercial zones – not just Yeshivas and houses of worship - are also a concern and will therefore be under the moratorium. There was just one problem.

The first version of the proposal presented at the November 7, 2016 Trustee meeting stated at the top “moratorium on development approvals in residential zones in the village of Airmont” and the text of the moratorium said that “the purpose of this local law is to temporarily suspend... development in residential and multifamily zones.” The commercial zone was not in the moratorium even though they project there were mentioned at the first meeting and even though Airmont had more open applications in the commercial zone than in the residential zone. Members of the Orthodox Jewish community at the meeting cried foul claiming that this proves the moratorium is aimed at Jewish houses of worship – more likely to be in residential zones - and the moratorium was tabled.

The moratorium was scheduled to be brought up again for a vote at the Board of Trustees meeting this time on Monday December 5, 2016, but Rockland County’s Department of Planning sent a letter to the Village dated December 1st stating that the moratorium language should state commercial zones too. This letter caused the planned public meeting to be canceled because the moratorium version for this meeting only referenced residential zones.

Suppressing Public Participation

The Village updated the proposal to include commercial zones and was preparing to vote on it January 3, 2017. Due to the massive public interest from the Orthodox Jewish community, the Village announced that instead of the meeting taking place at Village Hall, the meeting would be held at Town of Ramapo hall which is a mile up and can accommodate a much larger audience.

The meeting was called for 7:30 but by 7:00 it was almost impossible for anyone to enter the room at Town Hall where the meeting was set to be held. After a call to order, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and a few resolutions, the public hearing and public comment for the moratorium started.

After a series of public comments, the Board asked everyone to leave for the Executive Session, but the crowd remained in the room. The board members left Town Hall and held their Executive Session at Village Hall. Then, at approximately 10:00 pm they reappeared, this time to an even larger crowd than before and the moratorium was again tabled. Finally, on February 8, 2017 the moratorium passed in a 3-2 vote and it was to be in effect through early September 2017. (The two Trustees who voted against the moratorium lost re-election a month later.)

The Village website states that “on July 17, 2017, the Village Board of Trustees extended the Moratorium on building development within the Village of Airmont for an additional six months {March 8, 2018}.” However, the proposed extension of the moratorium was not placed on the agenda which is usually made public days before a scheduled meeting.

Summary

In summary, a village created in part with the goal to curtail accommodations to the Orthodox Jewish community’ a village who was found guilty in one lawsuit regarding religious discrimination and settled another lawsuit with similar concerns, introduced a moratorium that took aim at houses of worship as seen from what was said by lawmakers and what was missing from the moratorium language. The board used an executive session as a tool to extract itself from a crowd of mostly Orthodox Jews opposing the moratorium and the moratorium was later extended without the regular public notice. The moratorium is in place ostensibly to give the village time to review its land use laws adapted because of a DOJ lawsuit that the village settled in 2011 for targeting Yeshivas. Finally, the moratorium’s introduction, debate, implementation and extension took place over a period of time that the village adapted many ordinances which disproportionately – if not intentionally – target the Orthodox Jewish community. More about those in our forthcoming follow-up writing.

(You can read Part Two and Part Three of our Airmont and Discrimination series.)




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