Town sued over denial of religious group's expansion plans


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By DAVID PORTER

It has become a familiar narrative: a religious group seeks to expand on or build a house of worship, a town rejects the application and the parties end up in court.

In the latest battle between a religious group and a town's zoning board, the U.S. attorney's office claims Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey, in northern Bergen County, has illegally barred an Orthodox Jewish group from expanding its current facility or buying property to build a new one.

The town ``took actions that prevented Valley Chabad from purchasing alternative sites in the Borough over an eight-year period, and then denied Valley Chabad's efforts to expand on its current site, thus imposing a substantial burden on its religious exercise,'' a lawsuit filed last month contends.

The town has denied the allegations and contends traffic and safety issues were primary sticking points, and that Valley Chabad didn't meet zoning requirements for houses of worship, including that lots be at least three acres.

The Woodcliff Lake suit contains echoes of other recent disputes.

Last year, the town of Bernards agreed to pay $3.25 million to a group whose plan to build a mosque it had rejected over several years. Similarly, Bridgewater Township settled a lawsuit with an Islamic center for nearly $8 million after a four-year legal battle. Bayonne approved a Muslim group's plans to build a mosque this year after a lawsuit charged the group was the target of hate-filled attacks.

Orthodox Jewish groups have been at the center of other disputes.

The U.S. attorney's office sued the town of Mahwah last year, alleging it used local ordinances to discriminate against Orthodox Jews from nearby New York state. After a series of council meetings marked by angry confrontations between residents, in January the town voted to settle a separate suit filed by a local religious organization, and settlement talks with the U.S. attorney's office are ongoing.

Both Mahwah and Woodcliff Lake are within miles of Rockland County, New York, where towns such as Monsey and Airmont have concentrations of Orthodox Jews.

At a 2013 council meeting referenced in the Woodcliff Lake lawsuit, one resident told council members ``we do not need to bring an influx of people from other towns,'' and a council member spoke of ``keeping Woodcliff Lake the town that it is.''

In the early 2000s, the lawsuit alleges, Rabbi Dov Drizin was asked by a borough official for a letter ``that would explain how Valley Chabad differed from the religious community in Monsey.''

Valley Chabad alleges it began looking for a larger facility more than 10 years ago to accommodate its growing needs. It currently is located in a large house on a hill overlooking the Garden State Parkway.

Twice the group entered into contracts to purchase property and both times the town stepped in and bought the land using eminent domain, according to the lawsuit. On a third occasion, the suit alleges, the town modified zoning laws so townhomes could be built on a property Valley Chabad was seeking to buy, leading the property's owner to cancel his contract with Valley Chabad.

The group alleges the town rejected its numerous requests for zoning modifications to expand its existing property.

The town's response to the lawsuit is due later this month, and an attorney representing the town declined comment, as did Mayor Carlos Rendo, a Republican who ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor last year.

The town's statement denied discrimination played any part, and said it was ``saddened by the response of the Valley Chabad in their choice to take this action against our quiet New Jersey town, comprised of hard working people of all faiths that welcomed them into our community.''



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