pomonaThis blog post discusses the hotly contested litigation between the Village of Pomona (the “Village”) and the Congregation Rabbinical College of Tartikov (the “Congregation”) about a proposed rabbinical college. The case, Congregation Rabbinical College Of Tartikov, Inc., v. Village of Pomona, pending in the federal district court for the Southern District of New York, was commenced in 2007. The Village has incurred over $1.5 million in legal fees to date defending the case and that figure is likely to double by the time the case goes to trial later this year. The case involves a plethora of land use and zoning issues. We decided to write two posts on this interesting case. This week’s post will provide information about the claims asserted in the case and the decisions issued by the Court. Next week’s post will deal with sanctions issued against the Village for mishandling evidence.

The Proposed Project

The Village is a small community located in Rockland County. Its zoning code classifies the entire village as R-40, generally limiting development to single-family homes on lots that are at least 40,000 square feet in size (about 1 acre). In 2004, the Congregation purchased a large tract of property (about 100 acres) located in the Village. The Congregation intends to develop the site into a rabbinical college for its Orthodox Jewish community. The rabbinical college will train rabbinical judges. That training can take up to 15 years and includes study and prayer from 5 am to 10 pm each day. The development includes residential housing for students, faculty and their families, 10 synagogues, 4 rabbinical courtrooms and libraries. The Congregation contends that the students must live, study and pray in the same place full-time, in a Torah Community, separated from the outside world and that this requires multi-family housing be available at the site to accommodate the families of the students and faculty. There would be between 50 and 250 housing units, which will consist of apartments with 3 to 4 bedrooms, ranging in size from 1,800 to 2,000 square feet. The Congregation claims that the property is the only available parcel of land that is large enough and situated in close proximity to the religious infrastructure and population required for the rabbinical college.

The Congregation never filed any formal application with the Village for the rabbinical college. The Village initially found out about the rabbinical college when a group opposed to the development leaked a preliminary sketch to Village officials.

In 2007, the Congregation reached out to Village officials to discuss the project and to request a public hearing. In response, the Village’s Board of Trustees responded that a public hearing is premature in light of the fact that the project is illegal and requires a zone change. The Congregation responded by requesting that the Board of Trustees exercise its authority under federal law and grant an exemption as a religious institution that is not subject to local zoning. The Village rejected the exemption request. The Congregation’s response was to file the lawsuit.

The Litigation Begins in 2007

In the action, the Congregation objects to several local land use ordinances, some of which were enacted after the project was under discussion with Village officials. It also raises constitutional challenges and other claims.

The Accreditation Local Law

The Village Code allows for educational institutions as a special use. The Congregation contends that the definition of educational institution in the code prevented it from obtaining a special use permit because of an illogical accreditation requirement it can never meet and because of other building restrictions contained in the law. Under the Accreditation Local Law, an educational institution is defined as a private or religious school that conducts a full-time curriculum a minimum of five days a week for seven months a year and is accredited by the State Department of Education or similar recognized accrediting agency. This local law also contains minimum lot area, maximum development intensity, frontage, access, set back, parking and noise guidelines. The initial definition of educational institution was adopted in 2001 when a different Orthodox Jewish organization attempted to build a Yeshiva (a primary and pre-school facility) on the site and was modified in 2004, after the Congregation purchased the site.

The Dormitory Local Law

Although the Village Code allows dormitories, the code requires that they relate to an educational institution, and cannot have the separate cooking, dining and housekeeping facilities required for the rabbinical college. The definition of dormitory was amended in late 2004 to exclude single family, two-family or multi-family from its purview. In 2007, the Village limited the size of dormitory buildings to not more than 20% of the total square footage of all buildings on a lot. The Congregation contends these changes were adopted to thwart its project, which requires a large number of separate housing units for its students, faculty and their families.

The Wetlands Local Law

In 2007, the Village enacted a wetlands protection ordinance that requires a 100-foot buffer around wetlands that are 2,000 square feet or larger. The Congregation contends that this local law was specifically enacted to prevent it from developing the site since its site contains 37 acres of wetlands. The Congregation also contends that the local law contains exemptions that applied to almost every lot in the village except the Congregation’s parcel.

Other Claims

The Congregation claims that the Village’s zoning and environmental ordinances violate the equal protection clauses of the federal and state constitutions, the free speech, free exercise and free association clauses of the first amendment of the federal constitution, the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), the federal Fair Housing Act, the New York State Civil Rights Law and various other state common law claims.

2013 Ruling On The Motion To Dismiss

The Village’s initial response to the lawsuit was to file a motion to dismiss. Part of the claims were dismissed but several survived. In a decision issued in January 2013, the Court made the following rulings. It initially found that the Congregation has standing as it suffered an injury-in-fact as a result of the alleged illegal conduct of the Village; that there is a causal link between the challenged regulations and this injury; and there is a non-speculative likelihood that the injury can be remedied by the relief requested in the complaint.

The Court then evaluated the second ground asserted by the Village for dismissal – ripeness. In particular, the Village claims that the Congregation’s facial challenges to the zoning code, the equal protection clauses of the federal and state constitutions, the free speech, free exercise and free association clauses of the first amendment of the federal constitution and the federal RLUIPA are not ripe for adjudication since the Congregation had not applied for a permit. The Court rejected this challenge noting that a facial challenge is ripe as soon as the regulation is enacted (although it did dismiss one part of the free association facial challenge regarding familial association.)

In assessing the facial challenges, the Court explained these types of claims require a party to demonstrate that the mere enactment of the legislation violates its rights. The Court considered the Congregation’s assertion that the Village had a discriminatory motive behind the enactments. The timing of the enactments and questionable public comments made by government officials preceding the enactments suggested a discriminatory motive. The Court also considered the discriminatory effect of the local laws. Here, the effect is that the local laws prevent the rabbinical college from being built because of the restrictions on the type of housing that is allowed, the requirement that the college be accredited because there is no equivalent accreditation agency for a rabbinical college and the State Education Department does not accredit any college until after it is opened and operating. The Congregation also asserts that the Village adopted a series of laws over the years to prevent the development of this site and nearby sites by Jewish institutions while at the same time allowing other non-Jewish religious organizations to develop sites within the village.

The Village also claimed the Congregation’s as-applied challenges to the zoning code are not ripe because the Congregation has not formally applied to the village. The Court agreed that the Congregation’s as-applied challenges under the free speech, free exercise and free association clauses of the first amendment and the equal protection clause of the fourteenth amendment of the federal constitution, RLUIPA and state law are not ripe and dismissed them.

2015 Ruling On The Motions For Summary Judgment

The parties engaged in extensive discovery after the motion to dismiss was decided. They then filed motions for summary judgment, which the Court ruled on in September 2015. The Court granted summary judgment to the Village on the free speech and New York common law claims (meaning that those claims were dismissed); granted summary judgment to the Congregation on certain affirmative defenses asserted by the Village and granted the Congregation’s motion for sanctions. The Court determined that there are material issues of fact associated with the remaining claims that require a trial.

The jury will decide whether the prohibitions found in the laws, such as the inability to meet the accreditation requirements and the dormitory restrictions that prohibit the housing units required by the college, violate the rights of the Congregation. The jury will determine whether the multi-family housing units are necessary for the Congregation to exercise its religious beliefs, and whether the wetlands restrictions were drafted to target the 100 acre parcel. The jury will decide whether the local laws were passed with a discriminatory purpose and effect and whether the Congregation’s free association and free exercise of religion rights were violated by the Village. The jury will decide whether the rabbinical college must include the housing and other accessory structures for the Congregation to be able to exercise its religious beliefs and whether the Village’s actions placed a substantial burden on the exercise of the Congregation’s religious beliefs.

Next Steps

The case is expected to go to trial soon, but that is unlikely to be the end of the matter. The losing side is likely to appeal. And the animosity between the Village, its residents (who are footing the bill for the defense of this lawsuit) and the Congregation will continue to grow.