Rockland County, NY - Development Responds To Order To Shut Down Mikvah And Synagogue With Threat Of Religious Rights Lawsuit
Rockland County, NY - A Spring Valley condominium complex at the center of an NAACP complaint charging that the development was marketed exclusively to the Orthodox Jewish community may soon become the subject of a federal civil rights lawsuit after being ordered by the village to remove both its mikvahs and an on-premises synagogue.
Overlooking Spring Valley’s Memorial Park, the Park View condominiums were part of an urban renewal project in the downtown area and were partially built using federal funding, as previously reported on VIN News (http://bit.ly/2ew3y8J).
The NAACP filed suit against the Village of Spring Valley and developers of the project in 2013, saying that the four bedroom units with two kitchens and succah porches were being marketed directly to the Chasidic community. The original “For Sale” sign at the site included no phone number, reported The Journal News, and NAACP members who posed as prospective buyers said that they were not given the opportunity to tour the apartments, while calls for information were not returned.
Spring Valley building inspector Walter Booker discovered a school, a synagogue and two mikvahs during a June visit to the property.
Booker had rejected early plans for the onsite mikvahs at the development, saying that they violated guidelines for federally funded projects. When Booker discovered that ritual baths were under construction in violation of the site plan, he ordered the developer to remove them several years ago.
Assistant building inspector Manny Carmona later approved plans for “endless pools” in 2015 while Booker was under suspension, but that year-long permit expired this past May. Booker, who was subsequently reinstated as building inspector, refuse to renew the permit, ordering the mikvahs to be removed from the premises in late June.
An on-site synagogue and school were also found to be in violation of the site plan, which specified that the development’s community room could only be used for religious purposes if members of all religions had equal use of the space.
While Booker’s orders to shutter both the synagogue and the mikvahs are currently pending in local courts, lawyers for Park View have responded with the threat of legal action charging the village and Booker with violating the owners’ First Amendment rights and RLUIPA, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.
Religious freedom outweighs land use regulations, argued attorney John Stepanovich, who successfully litigated two similar cases in nearby Airmont.
“There is no legitimate government interest, let alone a compelling one, in imposing special burdens and restrictions on the use of property for religious purposes,” said Stepanovich.
Booker’s lawyer, William Gerard, said that because the religious restrictions at the development were part of the site plan, his client’s actions do not violate the constitutionally guaranteed right to the free practice of religion.
“He’s not budging,” said Gerard. “He’s got to enforce the zoning code and that’s what he’s doing. This isn’t a question of imposing restrictions on religion.”
According to Gerard, Spring Valley mayor Demezza Delhomme has said that Booker should remove the violations. Delhomme, who has long had a contentious relationship with Booker, denied having spoken with the building inspector and declined to comment on the matter.
Stepanovich said that his clients would be seeking financial damages from both Booker and the Village of Spring Valley.
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