Friday, February 22, 2019

Chestnut Ridge adopts hotly debated zoning law for houses of worship 

During a contentious and emotional meeting, the Board of Trustees adopted a three-tier zoning law that allows houses of worships in residential neighborhoods.

The law adopted Thursday night reflects the increased Orthodox and Hasidic Jewish population since the south Spring Valley community formed as a village in 1986.

The law's development took nearly two years from drafting the proposals and holding a handful of public hearings , a few of which drew up to 700 people.

The three-tiered system includes:

Residential houses of worship where a religious leader would live and could hold services for up to 49 people based on the local zoning code. The house would have to meet fire codes and get planning approvals.

Neighborhood houses of worship without living areas would require more parking and buffers, planning board and zoning board variances. The allowable attendance would depend on the size of the house, but could top 100 people.

Community worship houses on five acres, needing special permit, planning and zoning approvals.

The law includes restrictions on all types of land use, including houses of worship such as minimum land size, fire and safety provisions, parking and traffic requirements.

Mayor Rosario "Sam" Presti said the zoning law met the needs of the village and constitutional freedom of religion requirements. He released a statement on behalf of the five-member board explaining their view of the need for the zoning regulations.

"As new residents moved into the village, with different worship requirements, these additional needs triggered a review of the law because the village has a legal obligation to accommodate all religious uses and to not unreasonably limit them in terms of their location or based upon a particular religious denomination," Presti stated. 

"As the practice of one's religion is a constitutional right, the village recognized that its laws needed to continue to reflect the preservation of that right and to assure legal compliance in that regard," he said.

Presti said he hoped an Orthodox Jewish group — which played a role in developing the new zoning — would drop its recent civil rights lawsuit against the village. The lawsuit has not been served on the village and has been viewed as a warning if the village didn't pass the zoning law.

Opponents of the law — including members of the grassroots group CUPON — have voiced concerns about congestion and a rise in their taxes as their quality of life takes a beating. They noted the village's lacks enforcement and allowed a synagogue to masquerade as a garage on Spring Hill Terrace.

Critics who spoke at the public hearings claim village officials and planners worked on the proposal with members of the Orthodox Jewish Coalition before officials went public.

The village recently was hit with a federal civil rights lawsuit challenging the long-standing zoning for houses of worship with its minimum of five acres as onerous for religious freedom. Opponents — mostly non-Orthodox Jews — wanted the required five acres retained.

The lawsuit cites violations of the Constitution's First Amendment, the Freedom of Worship provision of the New York Constitution and U.S. Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, known as RLUIPA.

Since the village offered the draft law in August 2017, the Board of Trustees has agreed to opponents' demands for development of a comprehensive zoning plan for the entire village.

The zoning has become election issue as two trustees who voted for the measure go before the voters on March 19. Anthony Shaut and Planning Board member Jeffrey Wasserman - who opposed the zoning law and supported a comprehensive plan - are challenging Trustees Grant Valentine and Paul Van Alstyne.


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