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South Nyack: Stay Calm and SEQRA, Not RLUIPA

Nyack Colleges Mosely Hallby Bruce Levine

The sale of the Nyack College property to a Hasidic school has created fear among many residents.  I have fought overdevelopment in Ramapo, including winning the case against the proposed development of Patrick Farm, and can say that the sale of one school to another is not to be feared. At least, that is, provided that residents understand the planning and zoning process and the limits of, and opportunities for, local residents to fully participate in it.

If one school replaces another without any significant change to the land or the buildings on the site, there is little the village (or town) can do–nor should they do anything. Many fear Hasidic communities without knowing Hasidic people. The fear arises from the potential voting power of adults who vote as a block, of the community using its voting power for transactional purposes. But how can the replacement of one religious not-for profit school for another make a difference to village and town residents?

To just say “no” and oppose the school will lead to a RLUIPA lawsuit (Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act) that will potentially cost the Village of South Nyack or the Town of Orangetown millions of dollars with no practical results. The Village of Pomona has found this out the hard way (though appeals are pending).

South Nyack Village Hall. Sketch by ©Bill Batson.

South Nyack As Hamlet:
To Be Or Not to Be?

On Dec 17, voters in South Nyack will weigh in on whether their village should be dissolved and become an unincorporated hamlet of Orangetown. Advocates say it will reduce property taxes; opponents say residents will lose control of local zoning. The citizen’s initiative which lead to this referendum was sparked by concerns about the sale of Nyack College.

Read more: CGR’s S. Nyack Dissolution Report: 10 Important Takeaways.

Have a point of view about the Dec 17 vote you would like to share? Submit your opinion articles to max@NyackNewsAndViews.com.

On the other hand, the Village of South Nyack or the Town of Orangetown retain their respective right to properly consider the zoning and environmental aspects of any proposal. A simple replacement raises no zoning or environmental issues with the possible exception of issues related to school buses using the existing roads leading to the college property. This will be a question of fact if the existing dormitories are used by students.

If the applicant proposes to change or significantly enlarge the buildings on the property, the village has a right to review such changes under its review of potential environmental impacts of the proposal under the NY Environmental Quality Review Act. Since Nyack College sits on a hill that overlooks the Hudson River and can be seen from the other side of the river, any significant change to the property or its buildings can be approved, denied, or altered based on a proper environmental review under SEQRA (State Environmental Quality Review Act) of this significant visual environmental concern.

Any new construction will face many challenges beyond the effect on the scenic views given the steep slopes on the property and the limitations of the road network. Any significant new construction on the site may pose serious physical (even safety) problems and the village will retain its right to deny major engineering changes requested on the site based on the long-term risks of maintaining new structures.

Despite the claims of engineers that they can solve any problem, the built reality is often different from the promises made by developers. These risks must be fairly and fully reviewed by village or town decision makers as long as the review is based on expert opinion and factual evidence on both sides. The village can rest assured that the kind of monstrously large super-dense housing developments that have come to characterize parts of the Town of Ramapo can be limited or even stopped by a fair review during an open and fair planning process.

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No one should demonize religious communities of any kind merely because they look different or have lifestyles that are unique to them. I have known the people of the Vishnitz community for decades and their Rabbinic leadership. They are human beings who can understand honest concerns. Unreasoning fear of the “other,” real or stoked by political leaders, is wrong and counter-productive, if the process of good planning is to be honestly and fairly followed. Only this will lead to a result in the best interest of village and town residents.

Bruce Levine is a former Chairman of the Rockland County Legislature.

See also:

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