Mamaroneck and School Settle Dispute

The article below was written by Juli S. Charkes and Published January 27, 2008 in The New York Times

MAMARONECK – A SETTLEMENT reached earlier this month between the Village of Mamaroneck and the Westchester Day School ended almost six years of litigation in which the village fought the Orthodox Jewish school’s efforts to expand within its 26-acre property on Long Island Sound.

The settlement came after a United States Court of Appeals panel’s ruling in October. The panel upheld a decision by the United States District Court in White Plains that the village was violating the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act — a 2000 federal law that provides protection for religious groups — by denying the expansion without compelling reasons.

The settlement calls for a $4.75 million payout over three years to the school, a yeshiva, and allows it to expand without further zoning approval.

“Establishing peaceful, normal relations with the village is very important, but what we have established is a precedent that will hopefully send a message to every municipality out there that when dealing with a religious organization, be it church, mosque or synagogue, that there is real teeth to the power” of the religious land use law, said Stanley D. Bernstein, the lawyer who represented the school and who is also its executive vice president and an alumnus.

Steven M. Silverberg had been hired to represent the village during the initial phases of the litigation in 2002, when the application for the $12 million expansion was presented to the Zoning Board of Appeals. The board said the expansion would have no negative environmental impact.

That decision was rescinded when a “small, but very vocal” group of village residents protested the move, said Mayor Kathy Savolt, who inherited the imbroglio when she was sworn in last month The group’s concerns involved traffic and parking.

Ms. Savolt said the settlement — the largest in Mamaroneck history — coupled with more than $900,000 in legal fees, will severely affect the village. Mamaroneck, which has a $27 million budget, must borrow the money for the settlement and so will have to raise property taxes — by 1.5 percent this year.

“There are clearly many other priorities that the community could have used this money for, and in the end it’s the taxpayers who will suffer the most,” Ms. Savolt said.

Mr. Silverberg, who was brought back in October after Democrats regained a majority on the village board, said several factors contributed to his push for a settlement. They included the courts’ strongly worded opinions, the fact that the United States Supreme Court accepts only a small minority of cases, and the potential for significantly higher damages — at one point the school indicated it would seek damages as high as $22 million.

“The best course of action was to try and settle,” Mr. Silverberg said.

Representatives of both sides agree that throughout the dispute the school tried to accommodate the many demands of the zoning board, which included traffic and noise concerns. “They were willing to work with the village, but every time they got close to the finish line, the village moved the line,” Ms. Savolt said.

News of the settlement was met with relief among the staff at the school, said Susan Chasan, its early childhood director. On a recent tour of the school she pointed out administrative offices tucked into areas initially intended for storage because of a lack of space.

Outside, she motioned to the several hundred feet that separates the building for the fourth- and fifth-grade classrooms from the main building, the site of the original proposed expansion.

The intention, she said, was to link existing buildings to create more classroom space, while allowing students to move from one area of campus to another without going outside in bad weather. As if on cue, a group of fourth graders, bundled in jackets and boots to ward off bitter January temperatures, trudged outside on their way to lunch.

“That’s all we wanted,” Ms. Chasan said. “We just never understood why it was such an issue.”