Legal Watch

Federal Law is Changing Rockland’s Zoning Landscape

BY LEGAL LARRY

In 2000, Congress enacted a law known as the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. This law is commonly known by the acronym “RLUIPA.” The crux of this article will focus on the first part of the law concerning religious land use. It is fair to say that no one law has had such a drastic impact on local zoning than RLUIPA.

The land use-related provisions of RLUIPA prohibit state and local governments from regulating land use in a manner that discriminates against or among religious institutions or imposes a substantial burden on religious exercise, unless the regulation is the least restrictive means of serving a compelling government interest.

In Rockland County, one cannot drive more than a few miles without seeing firsthand the effects RLUIPA have on local development. Many local municipal officials and land use boards cringe when an applicant comes forward with a proposed religious use for land and asserts “RLUIPA”. Currently there are (at least) eight separate applications before various town or village planning or zoning boards seeking protection under this federal law.

The religious land use concerns any religious use of land. Churches, mosques, yeshivas, and many other religious uses are covered under the broad spectrum of RLUIPA. One of the most notable applications is in the Village of Pomona where an entity known as Congregation Rabbinical College of Tartikov proposes to build a religious school on a 130-acre property off routes 202 and 306. The Village has spent tens of thousands of tax dollars in defending its zoning code over what it believes to be an improper use of the land. The proposal seeks to build a religious “college” for rabbinical students and housing for the students, families and faculty. Additionally, there are applications in New Hempstead, Wesley Hills, Chestnut Ridge, Clarkstown, Haverstraw and other municipalities in our area.

Last year, the Village of Airmont settled a lawsuit brought by the United States Attorney’s Office claiming the Village’s zoning code violated RLUIPA and other federal laws. Prior to agreeing to the settlement, the Village spent thousands to defend its zoning from what was perceived to be an unfair use of private land. The Village also agreed to pay a civil compromise of $10,000.00 and amend its zoning laws to allow for dormitory style housing for religious schools.

Other municipalities in our region have been hit hard by RLUIPA. The Village of Mamaroneck in Westchester County recently was forced to pay $4.75 million when it lost a five-year battle with a religious day school. The Town of Greenburgh (also in Westchester County) also suffered a loss when defending against an RLUIPA lawsuit.

In addition to flaunting local zoning laws, the one aspect of RLUIPA that affects us all is in real estate taxes. Most, if not all of the applicants under RLUIPA, are large scale developments. Once these parcels are purchased by religious organizations, they inevitably become tax exempt, placing strains on already limited local budgets. In order to make up for every tax exempt property that comes off the tax rolls, the tax burden is shifted to all other properties, increasing our taxes further.

Many municipalities are looking at the parcels within their boundaries that could become potential sites for future religious land development. Places such as golf courses, campsites and multi-acre properties are ripe for religious land development. These municipalities are looking at ways where zoning can be regulated without involving itself in costly litigation.

Tell us what you think about this law. Log onto to the Rockland County Times website at www.rocklandcountytimes and proceed to the Legal Watch section to comment on this article. The Rockland County Times will report on other cases involving RLUIPA and large scale development in Rockland County.