As outlined in the first installment of this three-part series, the Village of Airmont in Rockland County New York changed some of its land-use laws in 2011 as part of a settlement in a discrimination lawsuit brought by the Justice Department. The village is now in a 12-month process of reviewing those changes and is apparently using the current review period to discriminate again in the form of a building moratorium whose origin seems to have aimed the Orthodox Jewish community.
The discussion of a moratorium was first proposed at a Board of Trustees meeting September 19, 2016. Below are other legislative steps that the Village adapted in recent years which have an overwhelming if not exclusive impact on members of the Orthodox Jewish community. More importantly, some of laws below were amended the last two years for the first time since the early 1990’s.
A) The holiday of Suckkot 2015 started September 27. In the days and weeks before any Sukkot, people remove branches that cover areas above where the Sukkah will be built because according to Sukkah bylaws, the view from inside the Suckkah needs to be open to the sky and cannot be obstructed by thick branches. Minutes of the Board of Trustees meeting of September 21st, 2015, held six days before Suckkot, shows that the “Mayor is making changes to Tree Ordinance.” The changes were done so oddly that it was corrected multiple times and finally on April 17, 2017, the board unanimously adopted a final set of changes to the law.
B) In March 2016, the village passed a Rental Registry which subjects homeowners to an inspection before renting their apartments to a tenant. This gives the village a way into people’s houses more often than the village would otherwise have access to those houses. The goal of the inspections is likely in response to the allegation that members of the Orthodox Jewish community in large numbers make illegal changes to apartments to accommodate the needs of Orthodox Jewish tenants such as two sinks in the kitchen. It is important to note that most houses in Airmont don’t even have apartments and the use of apartments is popular among young Orthodox families who can’t afford to buy houses and/or have no need for full houses. These factors suggest that the new code is aimed at the Orthodox Jewish community.
C) On July 5, 2016, the village adapted a no knock law which limits the solicitations of buying houses. Many municipalities passed such a rule in recent years following hyped-up allegations in media that Orthodox Jewish in massive numbers are committing Blockbusting. This allegation is contrary to what is happening because Blockbusting involves pressuring someone to sell their house below market value under the notion that “others” will come into the neighborhood and prices will drop even more. But what is happening literally in all neighborhoods that attract Hasidim is that houses are selling well-above the market value of a mere few years ago. In fact, prices of houses in neighborhoods which already have a substantial number of Hasidim are easily 10% above the market value than the same houses just a few streets down! Despite the opposite of Blockbusting taking place, many municipalities approved No Knock laws; Airmont among them.
D) On the same night that the No Knock law was approved in July 2016, the village had an item on the agenda that would have prohibited vehicles from being parked on the roads overnight; a rule that municipalities in rural areas usually reserve only for the winter to permit for easy snowplowing. Banning overnight parking year-round would limit the ability of Orthodox Jews to drive to shul Friday afternoon and leave the car parked over Shabbos; a necessity in Airmont as there are very few Shuls and the walking distance is quite far for many people. In fact, the crux of the conversation at the July 5, 2016 meeting was the growth of the Orthodox Jewish community and shuls were a main point when the parking code was debated. The motion to change parking rules was tabled at the time, but the issue continued being debated until it was adapted February 8, 2017.
E) On October 20, 2016, a celebration was held to induct new Torah Scrolls into a Congregation in Airmont. These celebrations involve a procession in the streets and cause some traffic for an hour or two. At the Board of Trustees meeting the following November 7, there was an agenda item to add and subtract language of the block party laws and for the December 5th meeting there was an agenda item to schedule a public hearing to amend the Parade Law. It is important to note multiple things. 1) December 5, 2016 is the same date that the moratorium was to be voted on, but it was delayed because the County of Rockland ordered changes to the language as explained in part one of this series. 2) Airmont has just a few parades a year, yet changes were put on the agenda just weeks after Hasidic Jews held an event that is governed by the Parade Law. 3) The changes seem to have been the first since 1993! In late August 2017, the parade law changes were officially adapted.
F) In June of 2017, the village board voted to change Airmont Day, (the village fair) from being held on Sundays as it was the case for years to be held on a Saturday. This change came even though more than a quarter of Airmont households are Shabbos-observant. The change decreases the ability of most Orthodox Jewish residents from attending.
G) According to Airmont’s code, it was illegal to park a vehicle on the first fifty feet of a property. This meant that residents needed to park their car in a garage or face a fine, but this rule was rarely if ever enforced. Therefore, it came as a surprise to the leaders of a Hasidic congregation when last summer, village officials told them that it is against code for congregants to park their vehicles in the first fifty feet of a lot adjacent to the House of Worship. To avoid being fined, congregants started parking after the fifty feet setback. On December 4, 2017 however, the village changed parking laws and residents are now permitted to park in the first fifty feet of their property as long it is on blacktop/a paved portion. This new code excludes the use of the first fifty feet of the above-mentioned lot adjacent to the Shul because it is unpaved, and the village has yet to issue a permit to pour blacktop on that property.
It is not unfair for Airmont to reconsider ordinance and rule changes in response to the changing demographic of the village, but the above list shows that the changes are usually in one direction – To make life more difficult for the Orthodox Jewish community rather than trying to accommodate them or to leave things unchanged. For example, if village officials don’t want cars parked overnight on both sides of streets ostensibly so that emergency vehicles should be able to pass easily, then the ban would be enough on just on one side of the street. Moreover, if safety is indeed the reason for the ban it should have been in effect during day hours too, but the ban is only from 2:00 am to 6:00 am; making it impossible for Shabbos-observant Jews to park in front of Shuls Friday afternoon as they cannot operate their vehicles until Shabbos is over Saturday well after Sundown. Better yet, since safety is reason for the parking rule, the village should add sidewalks (and implore the utility company to add street lights) on its main roads to increase safety for pedestrians.
Airmont’s relentless change of code to target the Orthodox Jewish community goes beyond what we just described. Please read part 3 of this series to see video of elected officials openly discussing a few months ago to enlist neighbors and to send village officials to keep count on how many people attend prayer groups Friday night and Saturday morning; the Jewish Sabbath.
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