Wednesday, December 05, 2018

Hasidic community opposes Woodbury’s proposed restrictions on boundary markers 

A proposed Woodbury law that would affect Orthodox boundary markers known as eruvs has prompted protests and hints of litigation from the village's growing Hasidic community and a law firm that has won court fights against attempted eruv bans by other communities.

Woodbury's proposal wouldn't prohibit eruvs, which are strings or wires attached to poles, but would require permits and set other rules for those that extend into public roads and rights-of-way. Woodbury introduced the proposed law in November, and held a public hearing on it last week that drew a standing-room-only crowd consisting largely of Hasidic residents.

The Village Board also got a six-page letter from Yehuda Buchweitz of the Manhattan law firm Weil, Gotshal & Manges, which has waged a series of successful court fights to uphold eruvs in New York and New Jersey. The firm is now representing, without charge, a newly formed Woodbury Eruv Association, and plans to sue in federal court on the group's behalf if Woodbury doesn't drop or curtail its proposal.

"I hope it never gets there," Buchweitz said by phone on Tuesday, noting that his firm has resolved eruv concerns with local officials in other communities without ligitation and hopes to do the same in Woodbury.

Woodbury's proposed law would apply to any "non-utility devices" in public spaces, regulating their height and appearance, prohibiting them from crossing roads and requiring permit applicants to obtain liability insurance, among other rules. Woodbury officials say they are trying to establish standards for eruvs as they proliferate in the village, and also prepare for 5G cell towers that have begun to appear on utility poles.

But Hasidic residents who spoke at last week's public hearing were troubled by the potential interference with eruvs and the mobility those barely visible strings allow on Saturdays. Eruvs symbolically extend the boundaries of homes and enable Orthodox Jews to carry objects such as keys and push strollers outdoors on the Sabbath, which would otherwise be forbidden under Jewish law.

Nachman Berkovits, who moved from Kiryas Joel to the Woodbury Junction development in January, said during the hearing that he liked his new neighborhood's diversity, and feared the proposed law would lead to costly litigation and sow discord between Hasidic residents and their neighbors in Woodbury.

"It's not just about the money," Berkovits said. "It's basically a proposal that would divide us, and try to create two communities instead of one. While we may be dressed differently, you may spot us in a crowd, we're still one community and we would like peace and (to) help each other."

Woodbury Mayor Michael Queenan seemed taken aback by the criticism of the proposal, saying in an interview several days later that the Village Board sees the proposed law as a fairly conventional effort to regulate new structures. "To us, it's just like passing a zoning law on solar panels," he said.

John Stepanovich, a Virginia attorney who specializes in First Amendment cases about religious rights and was hired by Woodbury as its "special civil rights counsel," said by email that he had reviewed Woodbury's proposal in advance "to make sure that the rights of all involved are properly addressed."

Buchweitz argued Tuesday that the law is onerous and unnecessary, duplicating requirements that Orange & Rockland and other utilities already have for eruvs attached to their poles. He said he could help Woodbury officials scale back their proposed law so it would let the village keep track of the eruvs' locations.

The board has invited the public to submit written comments on the proposed law until Friday, and is set to meet next on Dec. 13.


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