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Saturday, April 26, 2008

A Journal News editorial: Only the lawyers are happy

Only the lawyers are happy
The Journal News - April 25, 2008

In villages, towns and especially school districts throughout the Lower Hudson Valley, property owners are crying foul at tax increases that were once considered modest. Not in Pomona. There, a 70 percent tax hike is proposed for the village's 2008-09 budget. The increase is tied to rising legal costs and a pricey acronym - RLUIPA, or the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. That's the legal tool that the Rabbinical College of Tartikov wields as it tries to move through a rigid land-use process in the village, where it wants to establish a rabbinical college on what now is 130 acres of mostly open land. Actually, depending upon who's speaking, RLUIPA becomes either a "shield" or a "sword."

In any case, village residents have strenuously objected to the Tartikov effort. Everyone's deeply lawyered-up, and no one's likely to blink anytime soon. That's too bad. Even though homeowners seem more than willing to back a budget that will send their property tax bills soaring, it is still disconcerting to see a municipality bleed money this way.

A waste of ink

To call for Pomona and Tartikov to talk out their issues has become a waste of breath, ink and effort. In fact, the current village board majority was swept into office in March 2007 in large part on the members' pledge not to budge in the face of Tartikov tactics. The Pomona Village Community Party team hired its own legal expert to address the Tartikov plan even before the election win. Of course, Tartikov has its own list of leading legal experts.

The rabbinical college's prospective students, all rabbis who are married, many with families, would live on campus during their 15-year course of study. Tartikov has floated plans to house 250 students, but has undertaken environmental studies for a development that could support up to 1,000 students on 130 acres, an overwhelming concept for a rural village of single-family homes.

No easy outs

No, a resolution through negotiation, discussion or agreement with the landowner and the village is not expected. Unfortunately, the case will likely end in court, many years and hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees from now. Or perhaps more than that.

Pomona's RLUIPA experience is quite different from the Village of Mamaroneck's losing effort. There, the mayor's re-election bid was upended by a RLUIPA challenge that turned into a $4.6 million settlement with the Westchester Day School (which could have sought four times that in legal fee reimbursements). That was an easy call. The Westchester Day School case could have been a primer for villages in how not to make land-use decisions. A U.S. District Court, in a ruling later upheld by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, found that the village had refused the school's expansion plans, in violation of RLUIPA's broad protections of religious rights.

Familiar to both locales is the limb that all municipalities go out on when then venture into RLUIPA territory. Just what kind of land use is protected or considered a true "religious use" under the federal act? Gosh if local governments knew for sure. Some believe that the Tartikov matter may become a test case for RLUIPA in the Supreme Court. The very thought has dollar signs written all over it. Barring that, it would hardly hurt if Congress would review the 2000 legislation, to ensure the measure gives sufficient guidance to religious groups and municipalities, and achieves its stated objectives.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It's about time the Journal News talk about lawyers.

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