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Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Airmont spent $450G on yeshiva student housing lawsuits

Airmont, NY - Village officials spent $450,863 fending off a congregation’s plans to build a school with housing and in a failed attempt to beat a civil rights lawsuit brought by federal prosecutors for the second time in the village’s 20-year history.

After 10 years of legal battles and fees, Airmont officials agreed last week to a federal order forcing them to amend the community’s zoning code to allow student housing.

If Airmont does not change its zoning code by Oct. 15, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said the office will resurrect the lawsuit accusing the village of discrimination.

Airmont Mayor Dennis Kay and former Trustee Joseph Meyers, now a Rockland County legislator, argued the money was well spent to defend the village’s zoning code.

On the other side, former Mayor John Layne, the congregation’s lawyer and some residents said the village wasted taxpayer money by defending a zoning code that they knew discriminated.

Layne said that he had negotiated a settlement with Congregation Mischknois Lavier Yakov before the U.S. Attorney’s Office filed its 2005 civil rights lawsuit.

The village board approved Layne’s settlement by a vote of 3-2.

“I don’t think $450,000 of the people’s money is worth spending when the indications early on was this was not a winner,” Layne said. “All this accomplished was delay at the expense of the taxpayers. The government is not supposed to be rolling the dice with the people’s money.”

Kay and Meyers said the village defended its zoning, a main function of government.

As a result, they said, the congregation has not built its school and 170-student dormitory, along with 30 apartments for faculty and married students, on 19 acres along Hillside Avenue.

Meyers, a lawyer, said settling the case wouldn’t have stopped the the U.S.

Attorney’s Office from filing its lawsuit. He said the village founders were wrong to adopt a zoning code prohibiting synagogues in residental areas and student housing.

"If we had settled back in 2005 based on John Layne's negotiations, that project would long ago have been built and operating now," Meyers said.

"It's now 2011, the project is not built, the applicant has disappeared and the community is better off.

I'll leave it up to the taxpayers to determine if the money was well spent."

Meyers left the village board in 2007 when he won election to the Rockland County Legislature. He continues to advocate for the village and for revising the 2000 Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, known as RLUPA.

The congregation's lawyer, John Stepanovich, said Thursday that the Canada-based congregation has not gone away and plans to build its project.

Kay said the congregation has a permit and always has been free to file its plans with the Planning Board and other village agencies.

Stepanovich said Airmont played a losing hand when it violated the U.S. Constitution by discriminating against Orthodox Jews.

The 2005 federal lawsuit, he said, marked the second time federal prosecutors intervened in Airmont since its inception in 1991 to force changes in the village zoning code that discriminated against Orthodox Jews.

The 1991 case against Airmont's zoning forced the village to accept houses of worship in residential homes.

"Ask the taxpayer whether their efforts were worth it since the money comes from them," Stepanovich said. "The law is clear. Airmont officials seem to think that federal laws and the Constitution doesn't apply to them."

The U.S. Attorney's Office took the position in its 2005 lawsuit that Airmont's ban on schools with housing was unconstitutional under the Fair Housing Act and RLUPA.

Stepanovich said the case against the village was one of the nation's first RLUPA cases.

The village spent $122,270 in legal fees fighting Stepanovich and the congregation from 2002 to 2005. The village spent $328,592 fighting the federal civil rights lawsuit from 2005 to 2011.

The village clerk released Airmont's legal costs to The Journal News in response to a Freedom of Information Law request this week.

As part of the recent settlement with the U.S. Attorney's Office, the village must pay a $10,000 civil penalty.

The cost of the first federal lawsuit approached $3 million, including $1 million in village legal fees. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the village's appeal of decisions finding its zoning code unconstitutional by the federal courts.

Stepanovich said Kay, Meyers and other opposing officials should be thankful the congregation didn't seek financial damages and legal fees.

He said the village board worsened its position when it rescinded Layne's settlement. He said Layne understood the realities, having served on the board during the village's first battle with federal prosecutors.

"They had a chance to change their zoning and enter into settlement with me," Stepanovich said.

"Instead, Meyers wanted Congress to take another look at RLUPA and they spent a ton of money when the law was clear on this issue," he said. "They wanted to create an Airmont exception to federal law.

"I don't understand their thinking," Stepanovich said. "At a certain point people have to ask when are they going to learn their lesson."

Airmont homeowner Robert Burton said he hopes the legal costs are over for taxpayers.
He said the village should never have fought the yeshiva, noting the local government has lost every federal case and incurred fines and a tainted reputation.

He said he's not against religious institutions, but he understood the resistance to tax-exempt properties of all religious stripes.

"The federal judge in the first case (1991) should have dissolved the village when he had the opportunity to do so," Burton said. "The village is not needed and is nothing more than an unnecessary layer of government and an expense to the taxpayer.

Unfortunately, anti-Semitism still exists."

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