Sunday, March 29, 2015

Yeshiva's $100M suit against Ramapo villages dismissed 

A federal judge has ruled a yeshiva failed to prove allegations that several villages opposed a housing development based on anti-Hasidic Jewish sentiments when he dismissed a civil rights lawsuit seeking millions of dollars.

The decision - subject to appeal - involved a nearly decade-long legal action by Mosdos Chofetz Chaim against the villages of Pomona, Chestnut Ridge, Wesley Hills, and Montebello.

The yeshiva accused the communities of incorporating as villages to curtail the expansion of Hasidic Jewish neighborhoods through restrictive zoning. The lawsuit also claimed the villages hid behind environmental laws to oppose the town's adult student housing zone and singled out the yeshiva's housing and study center on Grandview Avenue, just outside the village of New Hempstead.

Chofetz Chaim sought $100 million in damages in its legal action from 2008, attorneys for the villages said. The yeshiva and Ramapo also have battled those villages in state court since 2004, with accusations of zoning and fire violations at the facility.

Rabbi Aryeh Zaks, his family and other Chofetz Chaim officials claimed the villages conspired to deprive the yeshiva of its civil, religious and equal protection clause rights under the U.S. Constitution, as well as the Fair Housing Act.

U.S. Justice Kenneth Karis wrote that while sympathetic to accusations of discrimination, he dismissed the lawsuit on Friday in a 76-page decision for a lack of evidence.

Karas wrote that the yeshiva officials "have offered nothing more than conclusory, unsubstantiated assertions in support" of civil rights violations and "threadbare allegations alone will not suffice to defeat" a request by the village's lawyers to dismiss the legal action.

Karas also cited a decades-long contentious relationship between the Hasidic community and other town residents.

"The allegations, while often supported only by inference, are grounded in the context of fifty plus years of distrust, hostility, and even bigotry within the communities at issue here," Karas wrote. "Having lived and worked with residents and officials from the villages during these many years, plaintiffs firmly believe that they have been targeted because of their religious beliefs, even if they cannot point to discriminatory statements by defendants."

Pomona's attorney, Greg Saracino, said Karas' decision is rooted in the law and an appeal to the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals would prove futile.

"The 100 million dollar case was designed to bankrupt the villages," Saracino said. "I'm glad it's history."

The yeshiva's lawyer and representatives of the facility could not be reached for comment.

Karas had dismissed the yeshiva's initial legal action in 2010 but allowed the congregation to refile.

Chofetz Chaim bought the 4.7 acres on Grandview Avenue in 1997, after the federal government declared the Nike military property surplus. A federal lawsuit settlement against New Hempstead for blocking development put the land back under Ramapo's jurisdiction.

Along with a study center, the Mosdos' project boasts 32 two-bedroom units and 28 four-bedroom units for students and their families.

A state judge upheld Ramapo's adult student housing zone. The villages brought a state lawsuit against Ramapo, contending the development failed to comply with the New York State Environmental Quality Review Act.


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