Kiryas Joel, NY - KJ Annexation Debate In The Spotlight At Public Hearing (video)
Kiryas Joel, NY - Emotions ran high at a five hour long public hearing on a proposed annexation which could potentially add several hundred acres to Kiryas Joel and ultimately double the population of the small Orange County village.
Approximately 750 people turned out at the Bais Rochel Paradise Hall in Kiryas Joel, with designated seating for Kiryas Joel residents on one side of the ballroom and a larger section available for the general public across the aisle. The hearing, one of several formal steps in the annexation process, was an opportunity to allow members of the public to express their opinions on the proposed expansion with members of the governing boards of both the village of Kiryas Joel and the town of Monroe.
An estimated 100 people shared their thoughts on the plan which would allow for the annexation of either 164 or 507 acres adjacent to Kiryas Joel. Many of the speakers found it difficult to limit themselves to the designated three minute time allowance, with both sides hurling allegations of discrimination at each other throughout the night.
The purpose of the hearing was twofold, according to Kiryas Joel developer Simon Gelb who filed the original annexation petition.
“Number one: whether the petition complied with the law,” Gelb told VIN News. “Number two is is the annexation in the overall public interest.”
Gelb explained that the fate of the annexation will be determined by a resolution by the boards of the village of Kiryas Joel, which would be receiving the land, and the town of Monroe, where the lands in question are currently located.
“The filed petition complies fully with the law and far surpasses the requirements of the law,” observed Gelb.
The public interest question affects three different groups, according to Gelb.
“Number one: the public interest of the territory to be annexed. Number two: the public interest of the municipality of the territory to be annexed by the village and number three, the public interest of the area remaining in the forfeited municipality, namely the unincorporated area of the town of Monroe.”
Gelb described the land in question, all located north of New York State Route 17, as “geographically remote” from the unincorporated area of the town of Monroe, located south of the highway which, Gelb said, would make the petition in the overall public interest of those most affected by the annexation plan.
Asked if the actual plan is for the full 507 acres or the smaller 164 parcel Gelb replied, “That is up to the boards of the town and the village to make that decision.”
Kiryas Joel government relations coordinator Ari Felberman noted that the petition was filed by private citizens, not the village of Kiryas Joel and that the board was required to deal with all annexation proposals, instead of cherry picking which ones seemed most palatable.
“Individuals who own land say we want to be annexed into the village,” said Felberman. “So who do we say yes to and who do we say no to? ... We have to entertain the entire petition up or down. We can’t say we take you and we don’t take you.”
Felberbman also noted that while many were opposed to the size of the 507 acre annexation plan, two other recently approved nearby annexations were considerably larger.
“One was the village of Woodbury: 30,000 acres,” said Felberman. “The village of South Blooming Grove: 35,000 acres. So 60 times as much as ours and 70 times as much as ours ...
If 507 deserves scrutiny, 30,000 and 35,00 should at least deserve some kind of scrutiny or some kind of comment and that passed without a whimper.”
Asked about concerns that an enlarged Kiryas Joel would prove to be an unbeatable voting bloc, Felberman replied simply, “What county are we living in? Can anybody tell anybody where to live? So what are we talking about?”
It is the way that business is conducted in Kiryas Joel that is the root of the conflict, according to Emily Convers, founder of United Monroe which vehemently opposed both of the two expansion proposals.
“The problem is the way the KJ government goes about doing business and the concerted effort to skirt annexation law, to skirt environmental law, to violate environmental law and our concerns are that 164 acres in the hands of the KJ government would not be handled properly,” said Convers.
Equally troubling are the hostility and lack of proper communication between the two clashing communities.
“We understand it’s a growing population but we are met with constant accusations of anti-Semitism,” said Convers. “We’re met with constant hate baiting message and propaganda from the KJ government and instead of them coming to us and saying ‘We have a growing population let’s sit down and come up with a reasonable solution so that we can live amongst each other harmoniously,’ we’re not getting that opportunity.”
Moses Vitriol, director of Kiryas Joel’s public safety inspector charged that those who oppose the annexation will seize any opportunity to thwart the expansion, noting that the village’s attempts to solve water issues by tapping into a New York City aqueduct were met with lawsuits.
“Whatever you are going to do they are not going to be happy,” said Vitriol. “It’s pure hate. Whenever we have these kind of events at night we have outsiders coming and throwing rocks and eggs and have these kinds of vandalism here ... You call that neighbors, good neighbors?”
Outside Paradise Hall, two groups of demonstrators standing next to each other held placards sharing opposing views. A multicultural group of men who declined to be interviewed carried signs saying “KJ gives us jobs” and “KJ helps us feed our children” while next to them a group of Chasidic men had banners calling for an end to the annexation and for better relationships with area residents.
“We have a big problem with the behavior of the village,” said demonstrator Yoel Loeb. “The neighbors here, they have many claims, they feel they are antagonizing them, they call them anti-Semites when they have legitimate concerns regarding the school district board and regarding other issues. We feel the proper way according to the Torah is only to sit down with the neighbors and deal with them, to make compromises to try to live in peace and harmony, not to antagonize the neighbors.”
Several elected officials came out to share their thoughts on the annexation.
Orange County Executive Steven Neuhaus cited a county compiled list enumerating a dozen different concerns about the Kiryas Joel plan, unequivocally stating that the plans were not in the best interests of the public.
Despite strong feelings on both sides of the aisle, Neuhaus insisted that peaceful coexistence is possible.
“There has to be a way to have harmony,” said Neuhaus. “We’re better than that as Americans and there is nobody that is going to come in and say ‘Everybody who lives Kiryas Joel go away’ and nobody is going to come in and say to the people outside of Kiryas Joel ‘Go away we don’t want you here.’ There has to be compromise and I believe that is what is going to have to win the day.”
Assemblyman Karl Brabenec chastised Kiryas Joel for being a self-serving neighbor and said charges of anti-Semitism, repeated throughout the night, were insulting.
“It isn’t about your religion or your way of life,” said Brabenec. “It is about your behavior and it must stop.”
Brabenec, who supported Assemblyman James Skoufis’ recently passed legislation which could potentially halt the annexation process, took Kiryas Joel to task for ignoring neighboring communities.
“Withdraw the annexation, sit down and negotiate in good faith,” challenged Brabenec. “You cannot silence the people.”
Skoufis was vocal in his opposition, asking which of the two annexations the hearing was about, and how it was possible to have hearings on two plans simultaneously. Skoufis repeatedly used the word “sham” to describe the hearing, held at a venue with extremely limited parking, and the previous scoping session, which took place during an ice storm, making public participation extremely difficult. The assemblyman called the annexation a smoke screen for an effort to change local zoning laws, driven not by private property owners but by the village of Kiryas Joel, and had harsh words for the members of the two boards.
“If either of these annexations proceed you will find yourselves in court at great taxpayer expenses and I predict that you will lose,” warned Skoufis.
Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams described the anti-expansion effort as “anti-American,” but it was remarks by Assemblyman Dov Hikind that generated the most controversy. Crowd members heckled Hikind loudly for turning to address the audience instead of the board members, turning their backs on the assemblyman as he continued to address them.
It took several moments for Monroe Town Supervisor Harley Doles, presiding officer at the hearing, to restore order, with the Doles asking one man who continued to show Hikind his back to be escorted out of the room.
Hikind insisted that the root of the opposition was anti-Semitic.
“The issue isn’t annexation,” said Hikind. “The issue is keeping the Orthodox and in particular the Chasidim out.”
Hikind noted that Kiryas Joel’s numbers will continue to climb.
“At the end of the day Kiryas Joel is growing and will continue to grow,” noted Hikind. “Let’s do it peacefully. This is America. We can find all the reasons in the world why it won’t work but let’s work together.”
Doles noted that while many of those present were of different religions, they shared the commonality of believing in a higher authority.
“I can only say that we trust in Him and that He will make sure that we will do right for His children, all of His children,” said Doles.
Doles affirmed his commitment to the Kiryas Joel and its founder, the Satmar Rebbe, Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum.
“I am happy that Rabbi Joel was guided by G-d’s hand to come here, because this is where the Lord wanted His children to come and survive and thrive,” said Doles. “That is what I understand and whatever I have to do to be able to provide this service to Hashem, that is what I am going to do.”
Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, executive director of Agudath Israel of America, said that as an outside observer he found efforts to stem the organic growth of Kiryas Joel to be “deeply troubling”.
“My appeal to the good people of Monroe and to this board in particular is to recognize that what we are talking about has broad ramifications,” said Rabbi Zwiebel. “It’s not limited specifically to what is happening here on a local basis. The eyes of the broader Jewish world certainly are upon what is happening here and we are hopeful that cool heads can prevail and can understand that the community is entitled to grow and that the community is entitled to expand in accordance with its religious traditions and its religious beliefs and to find ways to improve inter-group harmony.”
The night was marked with numerous standing ovations and thunderous applause from both sides as well as many heated moments when tempers flared.
Steven Barshov, lawyer for the annexation movement, opened the evening by asking those against the annexation where they believe residents of Kiryas Joel should go when expansions within the village are no longer possible, with one audience member calling out “Brooklyn!”
As Barshov continued posing his question, asking if people would prefer if the village’s Chasidic residents were instead interspersed throughout Orange County, several shouted out “Yes, yes!” amid thunderous applause.
Monroe resident Michael Egan chastised those who have painted the controversy as being religious in nature.
“This isn’t about religion and everybody here who tried to make it that way should be ashamed of themselves,” said Egan.. “What it is about is a clash of aspirations.”
Egan described the conflict as citizens of Monroe aspiring to preserve the area’s natural beauty, rural nature and high quality school districts, with Kiryas Joel officials hoping for the potential of unlimited growth.
Cliff Ader of Monroe tossed a barb at Kiryas Joel, pointing out the irony of being in an expansive, attractive wedding hall located in what the 2008 census described as the village with the highest poverty level in the nation.
“Thank you for the opportunity to speak in such a beautiful hall in the middle of the poorest community in the United States,” said Ader.
Hurt feelings were in evidence during the hearing with many sharing stories of slights.
“They do not want us in their community,” said Highland Mills resident Joan Oppenheim. “They are not nice. When you say good morning, they don’t answer you. I am not asking to live there. I am not asking to have 11 children. But don’t ignore me like I’m dirt because I am not one of you.”
Oppenheim said that the anti-Semitism card is played all too often by residents of Kiryas Joel, particularly in regard to the expansion.
“What is most disturbing to me is that whenever there is a disagreement on a principle or issue between KJ and the Monroe community they make it about anti-Semitism,” said Oppenheim. “I am Jewish. I’m not a Satmar, but that doesn’t meant that if I object to this annexation that I am somehow a hater or anti-Semitic or anything else.” .
Several Kiryas Joel residents who addressed the board discussed that the notion of preventing Jews from living in particular areas was eerily reminiscent of the Nazi era. Among them was Yoel Hirsch, a father of seven, who stated that while the opposition contends that there is no room for the growth in the area when it comes to Jewish families, dozens of stores and a five story parking garage at the Woodbury Commons shopping center as well as several major retailers including Target, BJs, Staples and Michaels have all been warmly welcomed.
“The contrast is clear and the hypocrisy is obvious,” said Hirsch.
Monroe resident Veronica Connolly said that she was personally offended by any comparisons to the Nazi regime.
“My two grandfathers both served in World War II along with countless uncles,” said Connolly. “I felt that my grandparents’ honor and the men and women who fought and died for that cause were completely dishonored when you compare an annexation process to Nazi Germany.”
Yet according to Joel Petlin, superintendent of the Kiryas Joel school district, not all of the relationships between Kiryas Joel and neighboring communities are acrimonious.
“We work well with the Monroe Woodbury school district, working together for the common good for the kids,” said Petlin.
Petlin noted that the tensions that exist in the nearby East Ramapo school district are noticeably absent in the Kiryas Joel school district, which serves a population that is exclusively Chasidic.
“We understand the needs of our community just like all school districts must,” said Petlin. “The population that we are serving requires the services that we are providing. We don’t have a football team. We don’t have a debate team or a cheerleading squad. Those are things other school district might have because that is what their community requires. Our community requires services that we can legally provide ,which is special education, remedial education and transportation. those are things we focus on and things we are quite good at.”
Speaking after the conclusion of the meeting, Kiryas Joel board member Jacob Freund said that he found most of the objections to the expansion to be related to concerns about the environment, something he found puzzling.
“Where were these people when the state got applications for the casino project to be built here?” asked Freund. “There was not a single lawsuit or protest against that. If that had been approved, the traffic and environment would have been much denser.”
Freund noted that the opposition to the expansion is the same reaction expressed 40 years ago when the village of Kiryas Joel was founded and expressed confidence that the annexation will be approved.
“This is going to happen with the help of Hashem,” said Freund. “It happened in 1975 and now in 2015 the same thing is happening now. Everyone from the Chazon Ish to Rav Aharon Kotler said that the Satmar Rebbe has siyata dishmaya and that siyata dishmaya will help us overcome this and we will be able to proceed with the annexation.”
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