To the Editor,
I am writing on behalf of the Town Board and myself to respond to an inaccurate and inflammatory front page article that appeared in the March 2, 2017 issue of the Rockland County Times. The authors failed to consult anyone in the Town of Haverstraw before publishing the article. Contrary to the article, the zoning proposal being considered by the Haverstraw Town Board does not foster conversion of garages into places of worship. Rather, it seeks to address safety issues caused by conversion of structures, not designed for such assemblies. Currently there is no zoning regulation addressing the situation where someone converts portions of a home to accommodate assembly of groups of people for religious observance.
We have become aware there have been instances in the County where single family homes have been used for large numbers of worshippers, creating fire hazards, dangerous traffic conditions and other safety issues. A federal statute known as RLUIPA prevents a municipality from curtailing religious activities, except in limited circumstances. Therefore, the Town, in most instances, is prohibited by Federal law, and in certain instances State law, from preventing the use of a home for religious purposes. Communities that have ignored RLUIPA have paid multi-million dollar judgments and settlements to religious groups as a result of their heavy handed treatment of those religious groups, placing enormous burdens on their tax payers.
We are seeking to create a balance by respecting the applicable Federal statute and the rights of all people to observe their religion, while establishing regulations that will protect the public safety. Therefore, rather than putting our collective heads in the sand and ignoring what is happening around us, the proposed regulations seek to ensure that locations used as gatherings for worship are not overcrowded, have proper fire safety procedures and equipment and do not cause unsafe congestion on narrow residential streets that also lead to delays for emergency services.
Those who suggest we do nothing are ignoring that without these regulations the uses will occur in any event. Yet, without regulation the result will have the potential for causing dangerous conditions that will likely result in injury or even loss of life to those participating, as well as neighbors of those properties and the first responders who have to enter such structures.
We will be holding a public hearing on March 13, 2017 at 8 P.M. in Haverstraw Town Hall. I hope that anyone with interest in this subject will review the proposed law. We welcome any and all constructive comments.
Howard T. Phillips, Jr.
Supervisor, Town of Haverstraw
Editor’s response – The characterization of the front page March 2 article in question as “inaccurate and inflammatory” is a bit of a stretch. The article intended simply to note that zoning issues regarding worship meetings within local homes would be discussed on March 13. Contrary to the supervisor’s letter, he was indeed contacted before the article was published, but he said he was unable to return the call.
The wording of only one paragraph in the article is in question. We will clarify the supervisor’s points of concern when the article is posted online and in next week’s print edition.