The New York Times

Our towns        June 15, 2005

Where Zoning Seems a Test of Tolerance


Airmont, N.Y.

THIS little village in southern Rockland County has been accused of doing what it can to keep out Orthodox Jews since it was formed in 1991. So it didn't come as a complete shock when the United States attorney's office last week filed a civil rights lawsuit alleging that Airmont is discriminating on the basis of religion by preventing religious boarding schools from operating in the village.

Still, if anyone is looking for a simple script, they should probably look elsewhere. Airmont has been slapped around enough by the courts to be something other than a virginal player in any discrimination case. But you can get a pretty good course in knotty legal, religious and land-use issues playing out all over the place, and with particular ferocity in Rockland County, by tuning into the collision between Congregation Mischknois Lavier Yakov and the residents of Hillside Avenue.

Even on a too-hot June day, life seems pretty blissful on Hillside Avenue. There are century-old cottages, giant new homes and mysterious manses lurking behind creaky gates..

So it's not entirely surprising that people are less than thrilled that Congregation Mischknois Lavier Yakov wants to build a 170-student dormitory on 19 acres where the congregation also wants to put its yeshiva. There have been lawsuits, heated town meetings and then a negotiated settlement that would let the planning process unfold. Soon after, the federal government stepped in. Its lawsuit said Airmont violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act and the Fair Housing Act by maintaining a zoning code that prohibits religious boarding schools.

What that really meant, the government said in its suit, was no Hasidic boarding schools.

Nor does history give the town much to stand on. In 1991, the federal government sued Airmont under the Fair Housing Act, saying the town was formed with the intent of excluding Orthodox Jews by, among other things, using zoning laws to ban the use of private homes as houses of worship. Eventually, after more litigation in the mid-90's, those provisions were changed.

When the yeshiva plan also caused an uproar, it was pretty easy to see similar issues: "It's completely unreasonable to be against something until you know what it is," said Dennis Lynch, an attorney representing the congregation. "All people really know is that it's Orthodox Jews. If you're against the project, you have an absolute right to voice your concerns. But ultimately the decision should be based on fact, not fiction, and plans, not prejudice."

BUT where he sees prejudice, others see the kind of concerns any suburban resident might have about a school for 170 students on a residential street. "Everyone's up in arms about it," said Anthony Quattrone, who lives at the other end of the street. "It's a quiet neighborhood, everyone's on well water, no one thinks it belongs here."

Others say the legislation cited in the suit, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, has become something of a monster, not just preventing prejudice against religion but giving religious institutions power that secular institutions might not have.

"You've now got the federal government superseding all local zoning ordinances," said Phil Tisi, assistant to the supervisor in the town of Ramapo, in which Airmont is located.

Then there's the question of what's a religious prejudice and what's an aesthetic or a land-use one? You don't have to spend much time in Rockland County to realize just how much the growth of dense, cluttered Orthodox towns like Monsey and New Square is the eternal thread in civic discourse. So, you don't have to be anti-Jewish to be skeptical of the school project here.

"I wouldn't want it, and I'm Jewish," said Leo Bellows, an 84-year-old retiree who was waiting for his sandwich at Joseph's Gourmet. "Once the Hasids come in, they want to take over the entire territory."

Then there is Barry Kostrinsky, a Rockland resident since 1987. "I wouldn't want to say anything bad about another religious Jew, but to me, this isn't about religion, it's about people wanting their own space."

So, whether this is really about religion or culture or even class is a little muddy. But even if they don't admit it, what both sides probably agree on is that when people argue about Hillside Avenue, they're really not arguing about Hillside Avenue.

"The opposition is less about what's going to be on this street and more about what's going to be on the other streets around it," Mr. Lynch said.