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Village of Pomona Improperly Adopted Local Laws Preventing Construction of Religious Use

The Second Circuit affirmed in part and reversed in part a district court decision finding actions by the Village of Pomona in adopting four land use laws violated the rights of a proposed religious use. In Congregation Rabbinical College of Tartikov, Inc. V. Village of Pomona, the Court summarized  the situation stating:

“This case poses difficult and in some respects subtle questions. Educational and religious institutions, as owners and users of real estate, are generally subject to local land use regulation. But they play unique roles in our society. Hence, our laws afford them some special treatment with respect to such regulation. Moreover, religious institutions enjoy the protection of the First and Fourteenth Amendments and federal legislation, each of which, in appropriate circumstances, trumps local land use law.

Given the importance in our free society of education, religion, and the usually legitimate desires of communities to regulate the manner in which the land within their boundaries is developed and used, conflicts arise when these interests come into tension. In resolving such conflicts, courts must differentiate among opposition to proposed land uses based on (1) legitimate development concerns like traffic volume, density, and sufficiency of municipal infrastructure, (2) bias against the religious faith or practices of the developer or of likely residents of new development, whether overt or hidden by legitimate-seeming pretext, and (3) mixed motives. These appeals reflect one such conflict.”
In reviewing the history of the case the Court noted that Tartikov (“TRC”)  intended to build a rabbinic college to train rabbinical judges,with housing for the students, who would study for 10 to 15 years, and their families. Yet, TRC never actually submitted a formal application. In January 2007, a group published an article purporting to outline the TRC project as including 1,000 students and their families, totaling as many as 4,500 people. This caused an outpouring of opposition. The action was commenced when the Village adopted two land use regulations, after opposition to the project materialized. The District Court, after a bench trial, found  the two local laws and two others previously adopted were “tainted by religious animus”.

The Circuit Court concluded:

“After careful consideration of the extensive record, we decline to overturn the district court’s findings that religious animus motivated the two zoning amendments passed after the plaintiffs’ wishes became known and thus affirm the injunction barring their enforcement. But we respectfully conclude that there was insufficient evidence to support such a finding as to either of the two earlier zoning amendments and therefore reverse that portion of the judgment. We conclude also that the injunctive relief went further than was appropriate and modify those aspects of the judgment as well. We affirm as to the cross-appeal.”

Although, the first two laws were adopted after a different yeshiva had approached the Village regarding potential development of the site in question, the parties had stipulated, before the district court, that those two laws, dealing generally with definitions of educational uses and dormitories, were adopted before the Village became aware of the purchase by the Plaintiff or its anticipated use of the property.  After  the 2007 article had been written, regarding the potential development by the Plaintiff, hearings were held on two new laws, drafted in late 2006, that placed limitations on dormitories, including height and proximity to wetlands. The Court noted certain statements by members of the public at the hearing  that alluded to the intended users of  the property. In the elections that took place in March 2007, the slate that ran its campaign on limiting development of Plaintiff’s property, won election and thereafter adopted the wetlands law that placed limitations on Plaintiff’s development.

The Court found the 2001 local law, modifying definitions of school and related regulations, such as requiring a special permit for school uses,  appeared to be a result of the informal proposal of the first yeshiva.  However, the Court found there was no evidence that the adoption of the law was motivated by any animus. Rather, the Court discussed the recommendations by the Village planning consultant, who noted the Village lacked any real regulation of the use and recommended that some regulations be put in place. The Court went on to note that there was no evidence that the law would be discriminatory, as it applied equally to both secular ad religious educational unatitutiona. Importantly, the law would not have prevented the construction of the first yeshiva, which was the apparent motivating factor for examining the Village’s existing regulations.

While noting the history of issues in Rockland County with certain religious uses, the Court went on to state: “…we must be cognizant also that municipalities may resist development pressures for legitimate reasons unrelated to discriminatory animus.”

With regard to the 2004 law the Court found that it actually eased certain restrictions contained in the 2001 law and likewise would have permitted the first yeshiva to develop. The Court also found the fact that the Village had opposed a law that would have benefited Hasidic groups that was proposed for the Town of Ramapo, was not evidence of animus, as was found by the district court, as the opposition could also be attributed to legitimate concerns by an abutting community. The Court therefore held: “…the evidence suggests that legitimate land use concerns precipitated the passage of these laws. We therefore find that the district court clearly erred with respect to the 2001 Law and the 2004 Law.”

However, the Court reached a different conclusion with respect to the two laws adopted in 2007. It noted that by 2007 there were the reports of an intended proposal for 1,000 students with multiple buildings up to six stories high. Moreover, there had been both a public outcry and a successful campaign by a newly elected majority of the Village Board specifically taking issue with the anticipated proposal.

Noting the difference in the 2007 laws the Court cited the fact that “…both 2007 Laws tightened, rather than loosened, restrictions on building schools in the Village….” The Court further noted that it was “…clear also that the board knew what TRC intended to do with the property when it enacted the 2007 laws.” After also noting the comments made by both members of the public and at least one member of the Board during the hearing, the Court concluded it could not determine the district court was in error when it found the adoption of the 2007 laws was a result of a response to the religious animus expressed by the public.

The Court went on to find that the provisions of the law prohibiting muli-family housing, and separate cooking facilities, along with the restriction on square footage that would have limited the dormitory to 20,000 square feet, significantly impacted the intended use of the facility. The Court found:”…sufficient basis in the record to conclude, as the district court did, that on campus housing of the nature Tartikov sought was important to the exercise of Tartikov’s faith because it would allow students to be near their families while maintaining a diligent study schedule.” Likewise  the 2007 Wetlands law prevented the development of the intended project. Even the alternative provision in the law allowing an application for  a permit to construct within areas otherwise prohibited provided no relief, as the permit is not issued if something else can be constructed on the site. Here there are other possible structures that can be placed on the site, but not the uses intended by TRC.

-Steven Silverberg