NEWARK, N.J. (AP/VINnews) — A northern New Jersey town has reached an agreement in a federal lawsuit that accused it of illegally denying an Orthodox Jewish group’s attempt to expand its footprint, the U.S. attorney’s office for New Jersey announced Tuesday.
If the agreement is approved by a judge, Woodcliff Lake will allow Valley Chabad to expand its existing property, and will pay the group $1.5 million to settle a separate lawsuit filed by the group against the town.
The U.S. attorney’s office sued Woodcliff Lake in 2018, alleging the town violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act when it blocked Valley Chabad from buying additional property or expanding its existing building.
According to the complaint, Valley Chabad began looking for a larger facility more than 10 years earlier, and twice entered into contracts to purchase property — only to have the town step in and buy the land using eminent domain.
On a third occasion, the suit alleged, 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 the contract with Valley Chabad.
The group also alleged the town rejected its numerous requests for zoning modifications to expand its existing property.
Woodcliff Lake denied the allegations and wrote in court filings that the Orthodox group’s plans failed to meet zoning requirements governing houses of worship, such as minimum lot size and parking capacity.
“Through our actions today, we have taken steps to ensure that Valley Chabad and its members will no longer face unlawful barriers in their practice of religion,” U.S. Attorney Craig Carpenito said in a statement Tuesday.
Woodcliff Lake is 20 miles (30 kilometers) northwest of New York City and just over the New Jersey border from Rockland County, New York, where towns such as Monsey and Airmont have concentrations of Orthodox Jews.
In the early 2000s, the lawsuit alleged, 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.”
Woodcliff Lake’s goal “is and always has been to engage in sound planning, common sense development, and beneficial environmental practices while fully respecting the constitutional right of religious freedom,” the town said in a statement Tuesday. “The voluntary settlement with Valley Chabad strikes this important balance and provides us with a path forward unencumbered by costly legal action.”
A letter from Rabbi Drizin provided to VINnews reads as follows:
I am writing today to share with you the wonderful news that the Borough of Woodcliff Lake and Valley Chabad have reached a settlement agreement in the ongoing lawsuit between the parties.
Thank G-D, after years of challenge this settlement will allow for the future home of Valley Chabad. This could not have been achieved without the full support of our community, the intervention of the United States Justice Department, and the team of professionals who have worked with us throughout this campaign.
This development is an exclamation mark in the long and beautiful story of Valley Chabad and the men, women and children who have been blessed by its presence.
From day one, the vision for Valley Chabad has been a place that would service the community, regardless of background or affiliation, a welcoming center for people across the ages to find joy, happiness, comfort, and connection within Judaism.
History and the experience of literally thousands of people will attest to the initial realization of that dream. What started as a small band of dreamers and a heavy dependency on miracles has become a great, big team of dreamers with an even greater hope for continued miracles, of both the Heaven-sent and man-made varieties. We have been the recipients of tremendous help and support from so many of you; we are eternally grateful for your loyal friendship and true partnership.
We are excited to start this new phase in building the future home for our community. There is still a lot of hard work ahead and we are ready and eager to proceed.
We will be updating you periodically during this process and look forward to taking this continued journey together.
Wishing you a Shana Tova! A healthy, sweet good year full of blessings!
Rabbi Dov Drizin and the Valley Chabad Team