Christopher St. Lawrence and RLUIPA

I was brought up believing that you should judge a person not by what he says, but rather by what he does. So I think it’s important to look at what the town board and supervisor have actually done concerning RLUIPA and development.

When they were faced with the threat of an RLUIPA lawsuit they folded. They refused to fight a federal agency that said it knew better how to handle local zoning issues here in Ramapo. And the cave-in was dramatic. I remember one member of the Ramapo board standing up and complaining, They’re going to sue us. Is there anyone who is going to help pay my legal bills? A very odd strategy if you think about it. Here was a board member announcing the price of his vote. Just threaten him with a personal lawsuit and you’ve got his vote. The rest of the board and the supervisor were just as feckless.

But it’s worse than that. After refusing to defend our rights, the supervisor then rewarded those threatening the lawsuit by giving them something called Adult Student Housing zones. There are four of these gifts to the developers: Patrick Farm, the Grandview Ave complex, Highview Avenue and one across the cemetery out on 306. If you would like to know what an Adult Student Housing zone looks like, drive out 306 toward Pomona and take a right on Grandview Ave. Up at the top of the hill, on the right, that apartment city dropped in the middle of a residential neighborhood is what they look like. And there are three more coming.

The Village of Airmont found itself in a similar situation with an RLUIPA threat from a developer who wanted to build a residential/school facility on Hillside Avenue that would house maybe 3,500. Airmont ultimately chose to fight the application in Federal court. Curiously, when the feds first showed up accusing the village of religious bias, of a breach in the Fair Housing Act, and of violating RLUIPA they had a local cheerleader tagging along behind them. Here’s a quote from The Jewish Week newspaper dated July 15, 2005. "Airmont residents are ‘doing everything they can to keep [Orthodox Jews] from coming into the community, and the federal government has had enough,’ Ramapo Town Supervisor Christopher St. Lawrence said. ‘I’ve spoken with the federal prosecutors, and they’re ready to teach Airmont a lesson.’" There’s no indication that the federal prosecutors had enlisted St Lawrence’s support, but there he is—They’re here to teach Airmont a lesson. Go get ‘em.

When the board and supervisor caved, they did something else almost as damaging, perhaps more so. They established a precedent that has not gone unnoticed by other developers. I have been to several village planning board sessions and heard developers who were not getting what they wanted muttering, or even announcing, Well we could take this to another level with an RLUIPA lawsuit. I am certain that was part of the considerations of those who are about to file for that 8,000- to 10,000-resident college in Pomona.

So, although you may be hearing a lot of talk from the board and supervisor in the next few months about "revisiting" RLUIPA for the sake of clarification, I would ask that you apply an old-fashioned measure to their posturing. That is, remember what they have done and what they are still doing regarding RLUIPA:

  • They gave up our zoning rights without a fight.
  • They gave away four large tracts in Ramapo (Adult Student Housing Zones) in order to appease the developers.
  • They encouraged developers to bring the RLUIPA club with them to village planning board sessions—after all, if it worked in the Town, why not?
  • The Supervisor sided with the federal prosecutors against the only village with sufficient backbone to fight what we feel is an unconstitutional law.

St. Lawrence and his board have enabled, encouraged, rewarded and cheered on RLUIPA lawsuits.

Just remember in November--It’s what they do, not what they say.

Michael Castelluccio