The government filed a religious discrimination lawsuit in federal court Wednesday against the borough of Woodcliff Lake over its denial of an Orthodox Jewish congregation's attempts to build a new worship center in town.
The borough and its zoning board violated the “Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act” when it denied Valley Chabad zoning approval to build a house of worship on its property at the corner of Werimus Road and Woodcliff Avenue, U.S. Attorney Craig Carpenito said.
Borough officials also “took steps to keep it from building a house of worship anywhere else in the borough,” he added.
“Federal law protects all religious communities from discrimination and unlawful barriers when they seek to build a place of worship,” 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.”
“The right to use land for religious exercise, free from unduly burdensome or discriminatory restrictions, is a fundamental constitutional right,” added Acting Assistant Attorney General John Gore of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.
Borough Attorney Ronald Dario issued a response Thursday afternoon, saying that the conflict essentially is over Valley Chabad's insistence on building a 17,000-square-foot-facility, with seating for 400+ congregants, on a piece of land zoned for a single-family home ( see full statement below ).
Valley Chabad two years ago filed a lawsuit against the town in U.S. District Court alleging harassment and obstruction over a 16-year period. A federal investigation followed.
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 “spent nine years searching for a property within the area suitable to construct a house of worship,” according to the suit 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, the 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,” it alleges.
“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.
The government is represented by Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael E. Campion, chief of Carpenito’s Civil Rights Unit’s Civil Division and Assistant U.S. Attorney Susan Millenky of Civil Division.
Borough Attorney Ronald Dario emailed a statement Thursday afternoon to Daily Voice:
"The Borough of Woodcliff Lake has in the past and will continue to welcome people of all faiths, including Valley Chabad. The issue before us is not one of religious discrimination, but is strictly a matter of building size, in that Valley Chabad continues to demand the construction of a 17,000[-]sq.[-]foot facility with seating for 400[-]plus congregants, on a single[-]family home plot.
"The Borough's Zoning Ordinance requires a three[-]acre minimum for such a facility. The proposed Chabad location is for a property of less than half the required size. The fact that the zoning application required two dozen variances shows how ill[-]suited the property is for their proposed use.
"There is no evidence to support the claim that Borough officials did anything to interfere in the attempts by Valley Chabad to purchase other properties. In fact, the Borough has attempted to assist Valley Chabad by identifying other larger plots that can easily accommodate their needs. For reasons unknown to the Borough, Valley Chabad has walked away from other projects and failed to entertain the idea of building on approved locations within the Borough, which were in conformity with the Borough's land use regulations.
"We have in the past and will continue to cooperate with any investigation into the Borough’s policies and procedures. We maintain that our Borough is non[-]discriminatory and welcoming for people of all faiths.
"We are confident that both Valley Chabad[,] as well as the Justice Department[,] will conclude that the evidence supports non-discriminatory actions of the Borough and the Zoning Board.
"Lastly, we are saddened by the response of the Valley Chabad in their choice to take this action against our quiet New Jersey town, comprised of hard[-]working people of all faiths, that welcomed them into our community. We merely requested that they conform to the rules and regulations as required within our Borough borders."
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