After a postponed session of a scheduled Special Village Board Meeting, from Monday, May 10 to Friday morning May 21, the Village of South Blooming Grove held a Zoom Meeting to codify the process by which religious structures could be acknowledged and accepted through village code. “This would make it easier for about 500 Hasidic residents in the Village to attend religious services. It would also make them eligible for tax exemption status and increase the already problematic occurrence of families walking to the yeshiva gatherings, often 2 and 3 abreast, along highly trafficked roads such as Route 208 which has speed limits of 45 mph in some places but 55 mph in others. But the main concern for the majority of residents who spoke against Resolution #1 on the agenda was how the Village will be able to compensate for the potentially crippling loss of tax revenue in a community primarily of modest means, and of less than 4,000 residents. Residents said that the several existing yeshivas that have been established in the past 2-3 years have already hit the Village’s tax income base, according to the Assessor’s records by over $1 Million. Asked whether there could be a cap placed on the number of yeshivas or village limit on the amount of exempted income, Village Attorney, Scott Ugell said that with RLUIPA laws that protect freedom in where religious establishments can be placed, that would not be possible. Asked whether the Village could at least do a study of potential financial, traffic and other impacts or options that could compensate for it, the officials insisted that would not be economically feasible.
Residents (about 8), who spoke in favor of the resolution commented that “Thank God this is America where we have religious freedom”. They emphasized the inconvenience of having to walk long distances to their regular services was an unfair burden, and commented that especially during these times of COVID-19 and other community stresses it should be made easier for people to pray. But other residents said that many people pray at home, and others experience their spirituality in the town’s beautiful open spaces and mountainside. One commented that it would seem to be better for everyone for them to build one large temple, than to try to create so many yeshivas and their related complications and impacts on others.
A second, seemingly unrelated resolution tossed out the existing process for observing Ridgeline and scenic overlay protections. It was widely criticized due to its likely results of negatively impacting the Village’s scenic views and scenic byways, especially in the numerous places that offer views of farmland and the Schunnemunk Ridge. Gone are many of the protections for threatened or endangered wildlife, flora and fauna. Instead the height and size of allowed buildings was nearly doubled, and up to 5,000 sq. ft.
Some who spoke in favor of the resolutions criticized those against it by protesting that “You care for the rattlesnakes, but not the needs of our families”, to which another resident commented that as a community we need to stay mindful of the needs of all in the community.and what is best for the Village as a whole.
Several of the Hasidic residents complimented Mayor George Kolaj, and said that major positive changes had happened since he took office in January. But other residents noted that many of the changes proposed in these resolutions were not congruent with the Village’s own Comprehensive Plan (which emphasizes the desire to retain the its rural character), and also contradicts a number of the Orange County Comprehensive Plan goals along with goals and requirements of adjacent State Parkland and the comprehensive plan goals of nearby communities. Tracy Schuh of The Preservation Collective said that the board should take a closer look at proper SEQRA (State Environmental Quality Review Act) protocols that protect the environment against building and code proposals that could have significant impact on the environment).
This resolution included a partially filled out form that claimed a NEGDEC (that is, a Negative Declaration of Environmental signifigance i.e. saying there is no important impact on the environment). Several attendees requested that the Public Hearing be kept open, particularly since comments were strictly limited to 3 minutes per person and was held at a time that most felt was inconvenient, though one woman said it was convenient for her since her children were in school. There has been no attempt to schedule meetings to find a common ground, as is often the case when significant changes impact a municipality’s Comprehensive Plan. Engineer Al Fusco said “Studies would be speculative.”
Following the meeting, Mayor George Kalaj announced that the PUBLIC HEARING IS OFFICIALLY CLOSED.
Following are quotes from the ZOOM participants.
“Why is there not even a formal resolution about the protective overlays?”
“Forms for the resolution are only half filled out.”
“Where are the resolutions for all of the other included changes. What restrictions are there left for the open space, its uses and views.”
Why would you want 3-story buildings that would obstruct the beautiful views.”
“Access was not available to the resolution on the Village website – Error 404.”
“Public notice was given and then changes were made.”
“All these changes make it very difficult to understand.”
“No explanation for changes or even description of details. No mention of visual impact studies. Endangered and threatened species, flora removed from protection.
“What a beautiful site, to see we are in the United States and have freedom of speech.”
“How important religion is…Open up schuls all over and any houses of worship.”
“There should be freedom to practice all religions…but you can step outside. God is all around.”
“I hope we can come together about this, maybe set a cap or percentage of buildings allowed off the tax rolls.”
“Why in a village so small do you need so many, when one local temple would suffice”.
“I live on the other side of Schunnemunk where many of us find the open spaces a place of worship too.”
“Thee are places and graves of ancestral worship in the mountain that should not be disturbed. Schunnemunk is actually a translation from Lenape, where there are historical markers for Chiefs, and grounds that are considered hallowed.”
“We pay taxes. You seem to care about snakes but not families”
“Ten years ago the Village did overlays to take away the priority of America to have places of worship”.
“We can’t have big families without a big living room. Why should we be squished?”
“Doubling the sizes of houses doesn’t make sense when there is not even water for the ones that already exist. They will require all kinds of additional support services. Where will the money come from?”
“This is the United States of America. We should not have to go to this extent for a house of worship”.
“I lived here 8 years and never had such a great day. People who don’t even live here, telling us what religion is all about…was like living in Russia or under Nazis. I don’t understand the back and forth.”
“We are in this together. Think about how it will impact your neighbors.”
“Why can’t you do studies on the financial impacts…the Village finances won’t be
sustainable or viable.”
“This should have input from first responders, whether there will be sprinklers required, what is the plan for parking.”
How will you distinguish a house from a house of worship? Many of us worship at home.
“This is written as a draft, not even written as a local law.”