BY JOEL GROSSBARTH
The lawsuit that could determine the landscape (and the possible future) of the Village of Pomona is underway at the United States Courthouse in White Plains, New York.
The village is being sued by a religious organization known as Rabbinical College of Tartikov. A legal fight has ongoing between the two parties since 2007 when Tartikov sued Pomona over what is claimed to be discriminatory land use regulations.
The college, which seeks to develop and build a rabbinical college on approximately 130 acres of land at the intersection of Routes 202 and 306, claims that the village unreasonably enacted certain zoning regulations in a preemptive attempt to deny the development of the parcel owned by the college. Tartikov claims in so doing, the village violated its rights under the federal statute known as Religious Land Use and Institutional Persons Act (commonly referred to by the acronym “RLUIPA”).
Under RLUIPA, a municipal entity may not unreasonably enact or enforce zoning regulations that place a substantial burden on the free exercise of religious beliefs. The statute, which was enacted in the waning days of the Clinton presidency, was initially designed to protect religious groups from overzealous municipal regulations. However, religious groups have attempted to use the law to develop any parcel of land acquired.
The Village of Pomona has spent millions of dollars in legal fees defending the case, causing the village to repeatedly raise taxes. Since the inception of the case, the village has been faced with rulings that have questioned the village’s actions. In 2015, United States Judge Kenneth Karas sanctioned the village over deleted Facebook posts on the Rockland County Times website made by a former trustee. Judge Karas later ordered the village to pay over $43,000 in legal fees to the college’s lawyers in connection with the Facebook deletion.
Both sides agreed to have the case heard and ruled on by Judge Karas instead of a jury. The outcome of the case will be largely decided upon affidavits and papers submitted by the parties. It is expected that the trial will last approximately four weeks with a ruling over the summer.
If Judge Karas finds the village violated the college’s rights, he can order the village pay damages, to process the application and additionally, order the village to pay the college’s legal fees, which could exceed several million dollars.
If Tartikov wins the suit and the college is built, many of the residents of the college will be able to register to vote in the village, changing the landscape of village politics forever.