By Arthur H. Gunther III
Rockland County, N.Y. -- Though this suburb 20 miles north of New York City has been most diverse since the Dutch came in the 1600s, a religious community movement strongly under way threatens the balance of planned growth and opportunity for all, including current residents.
In recent years, large Orthodox and Hasidic Jewish families have been moving, from Brooklyn principally, so that their communities can grow. Such religion-based intent surely must be respected, but so must the effect of rapid and great growth, which is creating an imbalance as housing density and numerous religious schools stress the infrastructure, municipal services and taxing ability.
Local, long-developed zoning, set forth in master plans, is being challenged through a 2000 federal law, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, the key provision of which is to blanket-grant religious institutions a free pass to circumvent zoning.
The law is not well-conceived, rushed into law by voice vote in both the Senate and House to fix portions of the 1993 Religious Freedom Act, which had been found unconstitutional over Congress’ enforcement powers. If there were an appeal of RLUIPA, it might well be found unconstitutional. While it was designed to protect religious groups against prejudicial local zoning, in fact it actually disenfranchises existing residents by forcing them to adopt a community environment that is negative to what they have agreed is planned development. You can’t have balanced law if it promotes one group over others, and that is what RLUIPA does.
And it avoids what should be sensible community discussion rather than law enforced from on high: How can we plan for diversity, for the inclusion of all, in a way that harms no one, that is fair to everyone, that is affordable, that continues the area’s overall vision?
While the laudatory intent of both the original RFA and RLUIPA is to battle against prejudice, to be an ally for religious groups, the law has been taken misused in Rockland. It has forced density in a suburb where one-third acre zoning has been the average since farmers’ fields were plowed under post-World War II.
The effect has been to stress municipal resources in the Town of Ramapo, negatively affecting the expensive water supply for all of Rockland, the sewer system and town services such as police and building code enforcement. In addition, there is a growing county social services tab for the poorer religious communities. Most impacted has been the East Ramapo School District, which is now serving far more private (religious) school students than public and which has a school board elected principally from the religious bloc that, in effect, has disenfranchised public schoolchildren through numerous cuts and management decisions.
Given rapid and continuing growth in the religious community and the subsequent legitimate need for housing, schools and services, other Rockland towns, villages and school districts can expect religious community expansion, some of which will come via RLUIPA. Government may well be scared off, coerced into abandoning long-developed, sound zoning and planning by the guillotine effect of RLUIPA: Plaintiffs can collect attorney fees and, in some cases, receive damages for the delayed cost of construction. This is great incentive for zone busting.
The Orthodox have been a vital part of Ramapo since the 1800s. But now RLUIPA is encouraging such a great imbalance that parts of the Rockland suburb soon will no longer be recognizable as such. Housing density already has brought stressed infrastructure and higher taxes; education in East Ramapo is unequal to that offered literally next door in the other districts; building departments in Ramapo and Spring Valley, as well as volunteer firefighters, are overwhelmed by dangerous code violations that are the result of great, haphazard, ill-planned growth. There is much fallout in the rapid, imbalanced, unplanned growth.
The future promises much more of the same, and, economically that is not sustainable. Nor is it socially, with such great imbalance in community, one that fosters prejudice rather than Rockland’s traditional acceptance of diversity. Educationally, children are already disenfranchised.
RLUIPA was never meant to cause all that. It is flawed law, and either Congress should rewrite it to balance the needs of the existing community with that of religious institutions, or an appeal should be brought before the Supreme Court. Clearly, too many are deprived of the lives they want to lead
to satisfy the needs of others. There is great imbalance, and it must be addressed.
The writer is a retired newspaperman. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org