BY TOM CLANCEY
OF PASCACK PRESS
WOODCLIFF LAKE – An Orthodox Jewish congregation is suing the Borough of Woodcliff Lake, its zoning board, mayor and construction code official, alleging they are depriving the organization of its First Amendment right to free exercise of religion, among other claims.
The nine-count federal lawsuit, filed on Nov. 1, claims the defendants harassed and obstructed plaintiffs Valley Chabad and Rabbi Dov Drizin over a period of 16 years as they sought to establish a house of worship in the borough.
Borough officials were guarded in their comments, with only Borough Attorney Ronald Dario responding to a request to comment, in which he described the lawsuit as “frivolous litigation” and said it will be “vigorously defended.”
However, Valley Chabad, in its court filing, claims the organization was consistently discriminated against in its pursuit of a property of sufficient size for the construction of a house of worship and related parking since 2006.
That year, Valley Chabad sought to buy the “Hathaway property” at 75 Werimus Road and the lawsuit claims the borough later sought to acquire the property as open space for recreational purposes.
It’s a pattern Valley Chabad claims was repeated again in 2013 after it sought to buy the Galaxy Gardens property, only for the governing body to begin efforts to acquire the property for open space in a controversial multi-year effort that was bolstered earlier this year when the borough received a $500,000 Bergen County Open Space Trust Fund grant to use toward the purchase.
In between those two incidents, Valley Chabad sought to buy several properties in separate negotiations with owners of properties on County Road, and the lawsuit claims the negations were impacted by the borough governing body objecting “that it wanted the County Road tract developed for a townhouse project...”
“Having engaged in an exhaustive unsuccessful search for a suitable property for over 10 years, plaintiffs decided that the only option was to develop its own property on Overlook Drive as a house of worship,” the lawsuit states.
The Woodcliff Lake Zoning Board of Adjustment unanimously denied Valley Chabad’s variance application in August that sought to remove the existing structure and construct a house of worship at the 100 Overlook Drive property it purchased in 1998. In its lawsuit, Valley Chabad claims the one-and-one-half-year application was denied while “the defendant board was knowingly responsive to local residents who were hostile towards the possibility of haredi Orthodox Jews moving to Woodcliff Lake.”
“There is no rational, much less compelling, basis to prohibit the Chabad from operating a house of worship on the property,” the lawsuit states.
Valley Chabad, an affiliate of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, said it needs the expanded facility to properly serve its congregation that is “suffering significant hardships to its religious exercise resulting from its lack of an adequate place of worship,” the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit also claims Valley Chabad was subjected to “harassing and intimidating” inspections by a borough property maintenance officer.
It further names Mayor Carlos Rendo as a defendant, in his official and individual capacities, claiming Rendo told residents organized to oppose the Chabad’s existence in the borough, “You vote for the Republicans and I’ll take care of Chabad.”
Rendo, reached for comment, would only say the lawsuit is “without merit” and deferred comment to Dario, the borough attorney.
“I suspect the timing of this lawsuit, which was raised only one week prior to the election, is a blatant political attempt to depict our town and its administration as biased,” said Dario.
The lawsuit also claims that Rendo, as Valley Chabad was trying to purchase Galaxy Gardens, “stated that Rabbi Drizin was ‘trying to turn the borough into a little Jerusalem.’”
Valley Chabad attorney Robert L. Greene, when pressed to elaborate on the factual basis of that claim, said, “It is our policy not to discuss evidentiary issues at this stage of litigation.”
Valley Chabad alleges four counts of the borough violating the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, and says the borough violated its rights regarding free exercise of religion, as guaranteed under the First Amendment, and equal protection, as guaranteed by the 14th Amendment. It also argues the zoning board’s decision denying the use variance was arbitrary, capricious and unreasonable; it claims the board failed to comply with relevant case law and violated the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination.
Valley Chabad seeks eight areas of relief, including an order reversing the decision by the Woodcliff Lake Zoning Board of Adjustment declaring Chabad’s house of worship approved and an order directing the board to reverse its denial and grant variances and waivers necessary for the project.
The lawsuit also seeks a declaration that the borough’s land use ordinances “to the extent that they substantially burden, unreasonably regulate, and discriminate against the plaintiff’s religious land use, are void [and] invalid.” Valley Chabad also seeks compensatory damages and attorney’s fees.