Where Religion Meets Real Estate, a Developer and a Town Face Off

Peter Applebome for The New York Times
Sunday January 21, 2007

Pomona, N.Y.

You might think this rustic village of single-family homes at the foot of the Ramapo MountainsĖonce home to Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard and Alan J. LernerĖis not the most logical site for a rabbinical college housing, 1,000 Orthodox rabbis and their families in buildings as high as five and six stories.

You might think itís time for some brakes on development in an area with chronically stressed sewers that is so short of water that itís thinking of taking drinking water from the Hudson (nothing like a little strontium 90 in your coffee to get you going in the morning).

But, if so, you probably would not be familiar with the Town of Ramapo in Rockland County. In fact, this sort of thing is pretty much par for the course in a place where the conflict between residential and religious rights dominates political life.

Itís like a legal mosh pit here, but itís far from the only place this game plays out.

Ground zero at the moment is a wooded corner at Route 202 and Route 306. One side of Route 202 in the unincorporated town of Ramapo is the site of a zoning battle over 200 acres likely to house multifamily homes and religious schools built by a Brooklyn developer. But the main issue for now is the other side, in the village of Pomona.

There, on a 100-acre tract purchased for $13 million, a Brooklyn-based group called the Congregational Rabbinical College of Tartikov plans a college where, organizers say, 1,000 rabbis, living with their families, would study for 15 years to become religious judges presiding over civil disputes among Orthodox Jews.

A formal proposal is not likely before late February, but on a property zoned for single-family homes on one-acre, drawings and plans developed by the group show as many as 10 buildings with space for at least 4,500 residents, parking for 1,000 cars and buildings as heigh as six stories.

Given the size of the families in nearby Hasidic communities, the population estimate is probably low. All this in a village with a population of around 3,2000.

"The attorney who represents the developer and owner of the property appears ready to file a lawsuit without knowing what the codes for the village are," said one resident, Brett Yagel. "Itís pretty disgusting. Theyíre trying to create this minicity in our village, and push out people whoíve put their heart and soul into the community for years."

The proposal might seem transparently outlandish but for two factors.

First, is the explosive growth of Orthodox communities in places like Monsey, Kaiser, and New Square, whose history of voting as a bloc has given them enormous clout in local politics and critical mass for more religious development.

Second is the state and federal legislation, particularly the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (known by its acronym, RLUIPA, and pronounced ar-LOO-pah). Enacted by Congress to "protect religious liberty and for other purposes," it says municipalities must be able to show a "compelling public interest in rejecting land-use proposals by religious groups.

Critics say RLUIPA has become not a shield but a hammer, used by religious groups around the country to force communities to approve projects at odds with local land-use regulation. Proponents say that the law appropriately protects religion and that local communities canít enact zoning codes that deny religious groups the ability to pursue their faith.

"I believe a church should not be treated the same as a Wal-Mart or gas station," said Roman Storzer, one of the lawyers best known nationwide for pursuing RLUIPA claims, who is working with the developers. "Itís in our Constitutional tradition to put a thumb on the scale in favor of religious institutions, and for good reason."

In this case, he argues, thereís a dire need for an institution to teach Orthodox judges and almost no available sites.

Paul Savad, a Nanuet lawyer representing the project, said the availability of land and the bustling Orthodox communities in Monsey, just down Route 306, make the site appropriate. "We need 100 acres, and we need access to Orthodox communities, businesses, and yeshivas," he said. "I can find land upstate, but I canít find places with kosher butchers, with mikvas, with yeshivas."

RLUIPA is not the whole ball game . State laws are favorable to religious uses, too.

But one local lawmaker, Joseph Meyers, a trustee in Airmont, has called for local governments to pass a resolution calling for local governments to pass a resolution calling for RLUIPA to be repealed, saying it has become a legal bludgeon costly enough to crush small villages like Pomona. Municipalities must pay their own legal fees and, if they lose a suit, the plaintiffís legal fees as well.

"We couldnít do it without it," Mr. Savad said of the law. As for the battle to come in Pomona, he said, "Weíre very well financed."