Airmont loses bid to void settlement over yeshiva project

By JAMES WALSH THE JOURNAL NEWS
(Original Publication: April 4, 2007)

A federal judge has ruled against Airmont in its bid to undo the settlement of a lawsuit over construction of a yeshiva with housing for students and faculty on Hillside Avenue.

U.S. District Judge Stephen Robinson in White Plains found that Airmont shouldn't be allowed to back out of the agreement, even if an election spawned a change in the voting majority of the village Board of Trustees.

"To hold otherwise would render settlement of litigation with governmental entities impracticable," Robinson wrote in his Thursday decision. "Opposing parties would always run the risk that, after the next election, a new government would simply move to vacant an existing settlement."

Mayor Dennis Kay said yesterday that his board wasn't necessarily prepared to surrender a fight that began several years ago and ultimately plunged Airmont into another lawsuit with the U.S. Department of Justice.

"We are in the process of reviewing this with our special counsel," Kay said. "We have 30 days to appeal."

The village board will discuss the matter with its attorney, Patrick Fitzmaurice of White Plains, in a closed session after its regular public meeting April 16.

"We'll evaluate it and decide our next steps," said Kay, the newly elected mayor who took office Monday.

Kay, a former trustee, became a member of a new village board majority in 2005 when then-Mayor John Layne's appointee to the board was defeated by Anthony Valenti.

Valenti was re-elected last month when Kay was elected to his first mayoral term. Layne did not seek re-election.

The court ruling, filed Monday, was praised by John Stepanovich, a Virginia Beach, Va., attorney representing Congregation Mischknois Lavier Yakov.

"My client, after being on hold for 10 months, is now ready to move to get the yeshiva built," Stepanovich said.

In November 2005, after the village began efforts to terminate the January 2005 settlement of a discrimination lawsuit brought by the congregation, Stepanovich accused the board of trying to "avoid its responsibilities."

The congregation's lawsuit came after the village refused to consider the project because it did not have zoning to accommodate it.

After settling, Airmont argued in part that the agreement by the Board of Trustees sidestepped the authority of the Zoning Board of Appeals, which would rule on variances to local laws needed for the project.

State law provides that village boards are legislative bodies that can change zoning codes, but variances to those regulations are decided by zoning boards.

It seemed to Stepanovich, though, that the village had to stand by its agreement, which automatically sent the matter to the Planning Board.

"The village board had the authority to enter the settlement agreement," Stepanovich said, "and there was no basis to stop it."

As proposed, the congregation would build the yeshiva, plus a 170-student dormitory and 30 apartments for faculty and married students, on 19 acres.

It presented its proposal to the Planning Board in December 2005, but has not been back since, despite a ruling by Robinson that the review could continue pending his decision.

Residents have raised numerous environmental issues such as the project's effect on traffic, sewer capacities and well water supplies.

The Planning Board is waiting for the congregation's response to those concerns.