An Orthodox Jewish congregation will be allowed to build a new worship center in Woodcliff Lake under an agreement reached Tuesday, ending a years-long battle that the borough fought with both the religious group and the federal government.
Under a pair of the agreements announced Tuesday, the feds and Valley Chabad are both dropping lawsuits against the borough for denying zoning approvals for the property at Werimus Road and Woodcliff Avenue.
The borough also will pay Valley Chabad $1.5 million in damages and attorney’s fees resulting from the ordeal, under a separate agreement between the two, U.S. Attorney for New Jersey Craig Carpenito said.
The government filed a religious discrimination lawsuit against borough officials two years ago after they officials denied the approvals to the Orthodox Jewish congregation, which has worshiped in Woodcliff Lake for nearly 25 years.
Carpenito said the borough “imposed a substantial burden on Valley Chabad’s religious freedom by repeatedly meddling in its attempts to purchase property in the area and citing subjective and misleading reasons to justify denying its zoning application.
This violated the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), he said.
Borough officials originally contended that the conflict essentially was over Valley Chabad's efforts to build a 17,000-square-foot-facility, with seating for 400+ congregants, on a piece of land zoned for a single-family home.
The religious group had been meeting by the hundreds in a home on Overlook Drive, across from Temple Emanuel. Overcrowding brought warnings from borough officials, however, so the meetings were moved to the Woodcliff Lake Hilton.
Valley Chabad filed a lawsuit against the town in U.S. District Court four years ago alleging harassment and obstruction over a 16-year period. A federal investigation followed.
Valley Chabad “spent nine years searching for a property within the area suitable to construct a house of worship,” according to the congregation's lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Newark.
“However, when Valley Chabad attempted to buy three different sites between 2005 and 2013, the borough thwarted those attempts in various ways, including expressing interest in rezoning or acquiring those properties through eminent domain after Valley Chabad entered contracts to purchase them,” it says.
“The borough ultimately acquired two of the properties and rezoned the third,” according to the complaint.
Other towns had been considered — among them, Ridgewood and River Vale — as well as other parcels in Woodcliff Lake, they said. But the property at what was known as Galaxy Gardens topped the organization's list.
“Unable to purchase a new property in the area that was suitable for their needs, Valley Chabad submitted a variance application to the Woodcliff Lake zoning board to construct a larger house of worship at its current location in the borough,” the federal complaint says.
“After two years, 18 hearings, and substantial revisions by Valley Chabad to address size and transportation concerns," it says, "he zoning board denied the application.
“The zoning board cited aesthetic concerns, the adverse impact on the ‘residential character of the neighborhood,’ and safety issues that were undermined by the testimony of the zoning board’s own experts.
“The board also noted parking limitations that were the result of a 2016 ordinance enacted well after Valley Chabad submitted its variance application in 2014,” according to the complaint.
“In addition, when citing concerns that Valley Chabad would not adhere to the occupancy limits proposed in the application, the zoning board falsely characterized testimony from a Valley Chabad rabbi about prior attempts to control crowds,” it alleges.
That lawsuit was resolved in a separate settlement agreement and proposed consent decree between Valley Chabad and the borough, which agreed to pay the congregation $1.5 million for its trouble, Carpenito noted Tuesday.
Under its agreement with the feds, the borough cannot “act in a manner that violates RLUIPA,” Carpenito said.
The borough also must “establish a procedure for receiving and resolving RLUIPA complaints, train its employees on RLUIPA’s requirements, and submit regular reports to the United States and the court on its compliance,” he said.
“RLUIPA protects the rights of every religious community to worship free of unlawful burdens,” the U.S. attorney said. “Through our actions today, we have taken steps to ensure that Valley Chabad and its members will no longer face unlawful barriers in their practice of religion.”
Securing the agreement for the government were Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael E. Campion, chief of the U.S. Attorney’s Office’s Civil Rights Unit, Civil Division and Assistant U.S. Attorney Susan Millenky of the unit.
"The United States is, and must always remain, committed to the right of all people to practice their faith and worship together,” Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband of the Civil Rights Division said Tuesday.
“For more than four centuries, religious people from all over the world have sought refuge here,” “Dreiband said. Often, these people did so to escape persecution by monarchs, dictators, and other despots.
“Then, when our ancestors established the United States of America,” he said, “the [f]ounders adopted the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and thereby enacted into law the right of all people to exercise religion.
“Two decades ago, the Congress extended these protections when it passed the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act,” Dreiband noted. “That law protects religious people and their institutions from unduly burdensome or discriminatory land use regulations.”
NOTE: RLUIPA is a federal law that protects religious institutions from unduly burdensome or discriminatory land use regulations. In June 2018, the Justice Department announced its Place to Worship Initiative, which focuses on RLUIPA’s provisions that protect the rights of houses of worship and other religious institutions to worship on their land.
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