For 16 years, Highview Properties D.H.F. has gone through a rigorous review process to build a subdivision in the town of Monroe in Orange County, but just as the developer got a key land-use approval, the project stalled.The town imposed a moratorium on pending developments. More restrictive zoning was implemented. Routine administrative approvals were denied.
The impetus for the delays, Highview charges in a lawsuit filed on Jan. 31 in federal court in White Plains, is anti-Hasidic animus. Newly elected town officials who campaigned against the subdivision, the complaint states, thwarted the project because of religious bias.
“We’re not allowed to say anything,” said Anthony Cardone, the Monroe town supervisor and one of several officials who are defendants, “other than to say, yes, we were served with a lawsuit.”
Former Town Supervisor Harley Doles, who also is named as a defendant, felt less constrained. “Do I think their vested rights were violated for reasons other than legal grounds?” he asked. “Yes, I do.”
Highview submitted plans for its Henry Farms Realty Subdivision in 2000. The developer planned for 115 residential lots on the 134-acre site, including 65 single- family homes and 50 townhouses. In 2015, the planning board approved the project.
Opposition to the development had begun in 2013, when residents formed United Monroe, whose stated goal was to replace town board members in the November 2015 general election. United Monroe’s campaign slogan was “take back our town board,” and frequent references were made to the “Kiryas Joel power elite” and to the Hasidic Jewish community.
Kiryas Joel is a village within Monroe that was founded in the late 1970s by Yiddish-speaking Jews who belong to the Satmar Hasidic sect. The village grew rapidly and now comprises more than half of Monroe’s population of about 44,000 people.
United Monroe couched objections to the development in terms of too much population density and quality of life issues.
But the Highview lawsuit depicts the objections as thinly veiled anti-Semitism.
A 2016 post on the opposition group’s Facebook page said that Kiryas Joel’s population growth cannot go on indefinitely, the lawsuit states, and calculated an alarming population figure. Assuming that each family has an average of 12 children, and each child marries at 18, “in five generations we are talking about half a billion people. Think about that — where are they going to go?”
United Monroe candidates Cardone and Michael McGinn won election in 2015. A few months after they took office, the town board adopted a three-month moratorium on issuing permits for residential developments while they studied its master plan and zoning laws. No emergency or crisis was cited as justification for the action, the complaint states.
The moratorium was extended six times, in effect stopping residential development. Highview asked for an exemption or variance but was denied.
The town board also revised its zoning to allow small “accessory apartments” only for homes that have been owner-occupied for more than 10 years, a rule that Highview said tends to exclude Hasidic Jews.
Last November, 18 months after the moratorium was adopted, the town approved new zoning that reduces the allowable housing in Highview’s project by 77 percent, from 115 units to 27. The zoning, Highview said, “eviscerates” the project.
The developer said it has sunk more than $1.9 million in acquisition and approval costs and more than $500,000 in real estate taxes and insurance.
Highview accuses the town and town officials of violating the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, as well as the state constitution, by denying due process. It charges them with exclusionary zoning and violation of the Fair Housing Act. It claims that the zoning laws amount to an “unconstitutional regulatory taking.”
The lawsuit also names as defendants town board members Mary Bingham, Richard Colon, Gerard McQuade Jr. and planning board Chairwoman Audra Schwartz.
The developer is asking the court to void the moratorium and new zoning laws and to order the town to allow the project to go forward.
Doles, the former town supervisor, said that when he was a town official he had concerns about certain elements of the Henry Farms project and he voiced objections. But developers have rights, he said.
“I am looking forward to cooperating with federal court and to providing any documents or recordings or any types of communications which will shed light on what I consider was a pattern of discrimination against a group of people who invested their money,” Doles said. “They were put through hell.”