The action this week by the upstate Village of Pomona just north of Monsey to limit the size of college dormitories is evidence of “overt, direct, anti-Semitic discrimination” aimed at a proposed $350 million Orthodox rabbinical college in the village, according to the college’s lawyer.
The law adopted Monday night by the village’s trustees, limits the size of college dormitories to 20 percent of the size of the total square footage of the college’s buildings.
Paul Savad, the lawyer representing the Brooklyn-based Congregational Rabbinical College of Tartikov, said that means that “if you have a 30,000-square-foot yeshiva,” you can have only 17 dormitory rooms. “It is illegal,” he said. “The state has held that you must allow student housing. They [the village] are not allowing it because their percentages make it impossible. And they don’t allow adult student housing because they don’t allow any kitchens.”
But Doris Ulman, the village attorney, denied the village had acted illegally and said Savad’s charges are an “insult to every member of the board of trustees and to the village itself and our community.”
“Look at any definition of dormitory in any town or village and you will find that it is similar to what Pomona has,” Ulman said. “When my kids went to college, they lived in a dorm and it had no kitchen facilities.”
She also insisted that Savad’s figure of 30,000 square feet for all the college buildings is “a very unrealistic number.” Ulman said that to build housing for 1,000 students, their spouses and children would require a tremendous amount of space.
“This [college] is primarily for educational use,” Ulman said. “It is not a housing project.”
As the Orthodox community continues to grow, thorny zoning and land use issues like the one in Pomona — where the interests of religion collide with those of neighborhood character — are playing out all over the region, from Airmont in Rockland County to Southampton on Long Island, and in places like South Florida as well. They often pit Jew against Jew, and in recent years the weight of federal law has begun to favor the rights of religious groups over those of local municipalities seeking to preserve the character of their community.
Area residents in Pomona are likewise concerned that the yeshiva project might destroy the rural nature of the community.
Eloise Litman, whose property adjoins the site of the planned college, told The Jewish Week the “area is country” and has remained “pretty much as I bought it” 42 years ago.
“We don’t have apartment houses in the area,” she said. “I agree that religious concepts need to be respected, but I don’t think that they should overrule everybody else. I have no concern about who lives near me, but I am concerned about the environment.
“And when you have overdevelopment, you overtax sewers and you don’t have enough water and there is traffic congestion,” she continued. “There is a difference between being in the country and being in the city.”
Savad said the college is designed to train 1,000 ordained Orthodox rabbis who would study for 15 years to become qualified to serve as judges on rabbinical courts. He said that because they would be married and have children, they would need to live in three- and four-bedroom adult student housing units.
The college would be built on about 130 acres that abut two state roads, Routes 202 and 306. The adult student housing would be as tall as six stories; Savad said exact specifications would not be known until the project is formally filed with the village late next month.
The site for the college is the only large undeveloped area in the village. Savad said it includes 10 houses the college bought along the periphery to provide an additional buffer for neighbors.
The location was selected because it is only about a five-minute drive from Monsey, where families would find kosher restaurants and yeshivas for the children. And he said Pomona was selected because it is “next in line” in terms of the “natural extension of Monsey.”
“We’ll have our own bus company to alleviate any [public] school involvement,” Savad said.
Although there are a few other colleges that train rabbinical judges, Savad said there is a major shortage of them.
“There are municipalities in the Midwest that have no access to bet dins [rabbinical courts] and have to go to civil court. This is contrary to what it says [in the Torah], that [rabbinical] judges should preside over all disputes.”
Pomona has about 3,000 residents, of whom about 2,000 are registered to vote. Savad suggested that the village is recoiling from the thought of 2,000 new residents — the students and their spouses — who might change the character of the community.
Ulman flatly rejected that argument.
“When a municipality enacts zoning laws, it is not counting votes or how people are going to vote in the future,” she said. “The village is concerned about the integrity of its zoning laws. We do not prevent educational uses or houses of worship from settling in residential neighborhoods, provided they meet the setback and height requirements and the environmental protections of our laws.”
“We have a decent-sized Orthodox community in the village and nobody questions who moves in,” Ulman continued. “We welcome all people. We have a very diverse community and if the people from Monsey want to come into the village and buy lots and build single-family houses, that is fine and we encourage them to do so.
“But the village does not permit anyone to build multi-family housing, and dormitories are the closest thing to that — and they have to be built in connection with an educational use.”
Savad said that after he files the college’s application with the village, he plans to ask that it be “considered in good faith.”
Should that not happen, he said, the college would be prepared to take the village to court.
“Most yeshivas would not have the wherewithal to challenge them,” he said. But he said the college has retained Roman Storzer of Washington, D.C., who is widely known for pursuing claims under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, known as Rluipa. It requires municipalities to show a “compelling” public interest in rejecting land-use proposals by religious groups.
But Ulman said she has studied that law “very carefully, and nowhere does it say that housing is a religious use.”
“The courts ruled a long time ago that zoning is a very important tool of a municipality in controlling the environment, protecting land and neighborhoods,” she said. “The New York State Court of Appeals talks of protecting the character of a neighborhood. You don’t want factories put up in single-family neighborhoods. It’s all about compatibility of use. … We only deal with land use; we don’t legislate people.”