It was announced moments ago that one of the largest-ever recoveries under the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), has been settled on behalf of Congregation Shomrei Torah of Clifton, NJ.
The land use provisions of RLUIPA protect individuals, houses of worship, and other religious institutions from discrimination in zoning and landmarking laws. As the Department of Justice has underscored, religious assemblies, especially smaller ones, may be illegally discriminated against on the face of zoning codes and also in the highly individualized and discretionary processes of local land use regulation.
In this case, the Congregation’s application to build a house of worship and adjoining mikva (a ritual bath) within walking distance of its Orthodox Jewish membership in Clifton – a project spearheaded by the Congregation’s President, David Gross – who also serves as Co Chair of Agudath Israel NJ office, was subject to excessive delay and disparate treatment relative to many other applicants. The process included 25 planning board meetings between 2013 and 2015, seven zoning board meetings between 2008 and 2013, and four separate trips to state court. In October 2015, following years of delay to that point, the Clifton Planning Board approved only a 7,000-foot Synagogue—less than half the size originally sought by the Congregation. Nearly two years later, the parties entered into a consent decree to resolve the Congregation’s state court lawsuit challenging the Planning Board’s limited approval, pursuant to which the Planning Board agreed to a final site plan of no more than 12,245 square feet. As part of the Consent Decree, the Congregation reserved the right to later pursue redress under RLUIPA, for which it engaged Weil on a pro bono basis.
In March 2018, Weil notified the City that as a result of the decade-long delay, the Congregation had sustained, among other things, excess professional fees, construction costs, and costs associated with the development and occupancy of an alternative site. After Weil provided the City with a detailed draft complaint that it was prepared to file in federal district court, the parties agreed to mediate the matter before former New Jersey Attorney General, Christopher Porrino, which proved successful.
Following a unanimous vote of the City Council on January 3, 2019, the City has agreed to pay $2.5 million to the Congregation, and it will also install a sidewalk on certain portions of the Congregation’s side of Dwasline Road necessary for the safety of congregants and all those in the immediate neighborhood. This settlement avoids a drawn-out litigation and will facilitate the Congregation’s long-awaited construction. The monetary portion of the settlement is believed to be a top-ten recovery nationwide under RLUIPA.
The Congregation is thankful to former Attorney General Porrino for his efforts in helping to resolve the dispute on mutually agreeable terms. With the matter now finally behind it, the Congregation looks forward to working cooperatively with the City as it builds its long-anticipated house of worship.
For Weil, this latest achievement comes on the heels of landmark religious liberty settlements obtained by its litigators — also on a pro bono basis — with the Bergen County, New Jersey towns of Mahwah, Upper Saddle River, and Montvale. In 2017, each of those towns attempted unsuccessfully to halt or preclude construction of an Eruv—a near-invisible demarcation that allows observant Jews to carry outside of their homes on the Sabbath and Yom Kippur.
The Weil team was led by partner Yehudah Buchweitz, counsel David Yolkut, and Pro Bono Senior Counsel, Robert Sugarman. It also included associates Alyson Warhit, Kaela Dahan, Michael Nagelberg, Aaron Curtis, and Benjamin Ritholtz.