By Legal Larry
Ask any local elected official about their concerns for their municipality. Chances are that beside the overwhelming issue surrounding local budgets, the biggest concern is what to do with the religious land use applications. Recent litigations in Rockland have sent shock waves throughout the communities where applications for religious uses of land have been submitted.
The First Amendment to the United States Constitution allows for the freedom of religion and the freedom of free speech. However, What the Constitution leaves unsaid frames the debate on religious land use: (1) what scope of Free Exercise does the Constitution mandate and (2) how does government balance a religious congregation’s liberty and property rights against the larger community interests?
The villages of Airmont, Suffern and Pomona have all been recently dragged into court in connection with application submitted by owners of properties seeking to exercise their religious beliefs.
It all started in 1994 when a lawsuit was filed in Federal Court by Rabbi Leblanc-Sternberg against the then Village Board of Airmont. The government of the United States then also sued the Village of Airmont claiming that its recently adopted zoning code unreasonably and unconstitutionally prevented the free exercise of religion within the village. After a prolonged and contentious litigation, the Village of Airmont changed its zoning laws to permit certain religious uses of land and development. Then came the Religious Land Use and Institutional Person’s Act (commonly referred to as “RLUIPA”). The effect of this federal law gave land owners and developers muscle to sue municipalities that unreasonably infringed upon their First Amendment rights of freedom of religion in connection with zoning requirements.
The extension of state and federal laws and the cases that follow RLUIPA have created nightmares in Rockland County. Those nightmares are now being realized in many towns and villages. Currently, the Village of New Hempstead has two proposed applications to build religious facilities. The Village of Airmont has an application for a proposed residential house of worship. With the costs of building new churches, temples and mosques in the tens of millions of dollars, the residential house of worship seems to be the method of choice.
Residential houses of worship are the hardest to govern. Simply stated, they are as the title states – a home where religious groups assemble to exercise their religious beliefs. Some are referred to as shtiebels (the Yiddish word meaning “little house” or “little room”). But, being located in exclusively residential areas, these houses of worship create ancillary problems. Traffic, parking, noise and trash are just a few of the concerns these applications pose. Neighbors usually hate them and municipalities fear them.
Many of these houses of worship are either partially or wholly exempt from property taxes; thus creating more of a strain for the remainder of the tax base. So what is government to do?
Many residential houses of worship go through the proper channels. However, many do not. Most municipalities turn away rather than enforce their zoning laws. Once discovered, local officials try to work with the owners to pacify their constituents. Lately, many local fire officials have voiced their concerns over the risk that firefighters face when called to these homes.
Local officials need to enforce zoning. The laws are made for everyone’s protection and favoring a few over the whole creates unnecessary grief in the community. Each application must be treated fairly and respectfully. However, those that choose to operative unlawfully must be dealt with appropriately.
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