A Rockland County village is facing a new federal lawsuit over what prosecutors call an institutional history of anti-Semitic zoning codes against Orthodox Jewish residents since the village formed three decades ago.
The administrators of the village of Airmont, near the ultra-Orthodox Jewish haven of Monsey, are accused of creating zoning codes that explicitly prevent residential places of worship as a by-right use, and applying village code in a way “to make it impossible for Orthodox Jewish applicants to win zoning approval of home synagogues and a school,” according to the lawsuit filed Wednesday in federal district court by Audrey Strauss, the Acting U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York.
The zoning code against residential places of worship especially targets Orthodox Jews because of their need for walkable synagogues or religious gathering spots on the Shabbat, when they are prohibited from using vehicles to travel.
The village administrators are also accused of creating an 18-month village-wide moratorium on development in 2017 that allegedly had “no legitimate governmental purpose and was instead used to prevent Orthodox Jewish community members from advancing their religious land-use applications,” the lawsuit said.
Airmont is also alleged to have prevented homeowners from clearing trees on their property to build sukkahs or to install mikvahs, and implemented “Kafkaesque” rules, unfounded fines, and arbitrary bureaucratic delays to inconvenience Orthodox Jewish applicants, the lawsuit said. One congregation has been seeking approval for a home synagogue application since March 2012.
The village’s actions violate the terms of previously established judgements in two previous federal cases against Airmont, the lawsuit said, citing the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act and the Fair Housing Act.
Brian Sokoloff, the attorney for the village of Airmont, told Gothamist the village "denies all allegations of discriminatory conduct" and that the new lawsuit "rehashes false allegations from prior lawsuits."
"The village of Airmont respects and supports the right of every resident to practice their faith. The village's goal has always been and remains to make sure that the residents have places to assemble and pray that are safe and that comply with all state and local building and fire codes," Sokoloff said in a phone interview. "The village will continue to work with the Department of Justice to address any legitimate concerns."
The discriminatory actions began with the village’s creation in 1991, when the Airmont Civic Association broke away from the town of Ramapo after Ramapo passed zoning code amendments to allow for home synagogues, according to the lawsuit, which described the move as born of “religious animus” because of increasing numbers of Jewish residents.
The Airmont Civic Association used language like a “grim Hasidic belt” and the need for “keeping the Hasidim out” of the newly created village, according to the lawsuit.
Sokoloff disputed the lawsuit's characterization of the village's creation: "The demographics of the village show a very healthy population of Orthodox Jews. And that speaks for itself," he said. "The plaintiffs argued that the village was created to exclude Orthodox and Hasidic Jews...(but) even after the incorporation of the village, Orthodox and Hasidic Jews moved in, in large numbers."
"They're rewriting history," he added.
After the village of Airmont incorporated, the federal government successfully sued for violations of the Fair Housing Act in 1995. In a 1996 injunction ruling, the village was also required to notify the federal government of any changes to its zoning code for five years, which it fought in various court challenges. In 2005 the federal government again sued over the village’s prohibition on Hasidic boarding schools, which resulted in a consent decree issued in 2011 that expired in 2015.
The village’s newest zoning amendments were led by Mayor Philip Gigante, who on the eve of Yom Kippur in 2017, sent the village’s fire inspector to demand that his own neighbors take down their sukkah despite no violations, the lawsuit said.
“As a jury found over two decades ago, the Village of Airmont was born out of a spirit of animus against a religious minority,” Strauss said in a statement Wednesday. "Sadly, rather than working to overcome that shameful legacy, Airmont has flagrantly ignored the terms of a court judgment and implemented land use practices that by design and operation are again meant to infringe unlawfully on the rights of a minority religious community. Religious discrimination will not be tolerated. We will remain vigilant to ensure that the right to worship freely and without undue interference is protected for all.”