Attorney general beats back Chester's demand that she not intervene in housing lawsuit

Chester. The comments local officials have made about the Greens of Chester and the Hasidic Jews they presume will live there has prevented the town and county from doing what it might otherwise be able to do to preserve its land, protect its water, and enforce its zoning.

03 Jan 2020 | 06:43

The New York Attorney General fired back at the Town of Chester's demand that she not intervene in a developer's $100 million federal discrimination lawsuit.

"I am confident that, at the end of the day, that we will be victorious and that the Greens will be built, period," said the attorney general, Letitia James, in a video on Dec. 30. "The defendants have engaged in a concerted, systematic scheme to prevent Hasidic Jewish families from moving into the town in violation of the FHA," the Fair Housing Act.

The Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination in housing because of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status, or disability.

James was responding to a Dec. 19 memorandum by the town's attorneys, Mary Marzolla and Patrick Knowles, asking Judge Cathy Seibel to block the attorney general's intervention in the Greens of Chester's lawsuit against the town. The attorney general is attempting to "highjack" the town on behalf of one private developer and refuses even to hear town's position, they said.

In her written reply, James said she is intervening to protect the state's "quasi-sovereign interests," and that the attorney general has "a strong interest in protecting residents from unlawful discrimination, and it seeks relief that cannot be achieved through plaintiff's private suit."

James disputed Marzolla and Knowles' assertion that the attorney general's intervention and the Greens' lawsuit are one and the same. The attorney general's action "is distinct and far broader than vindicating plaintiff's private interests," she said.

James said Orange County is also "engaged in a systematic and concerted effort both separately and with the town to obstruct plaintiff from building housing on the Greens with discriminatory animus" by undermining the Greens' sewer and water permits, and attempting to re-zone the site for commercial use. She said the town tried to prevent families with children from moving into the Greens by limiting the size of nearly half of the homes in the Greens to 577 square feet and by denying building permits.

James said the town lawyers are also wrong in claiming a conflict between her intervention and the action of another state agency that she sometimes represents, the department of health. The department of health granted Orange County's request for further water testing after the water permit was granted. But the county made the request "for discriminatory reasons," James said. "That is what is at issue here. There is no conflict in challenging this discriminatory conduct."

Val Drummond at Marzolla's law firm, Feerick Nugent MacCartney, said in an email on Friday, "We have been very busy with our motion to dismiss that we are filing on Monday."

Chester's quandary

The town attorneys' Dec. 19 memorandum says the attorney general wants to force Chester to immediately grant the Greens of Chester everything the developer wants, however unreasonable. But teasing apart reasonable demands from discriminatory ones presents Chester with a vexing quandary. The comments its officials have made publicly about the Greens of Chester and the Hasidic Jews they presume will live there has prevented the town from doing what it might otherwise be able to do to preserve its land, protect its water, and enforce its zoning. Because of these comments, Gov. Andrew Cuomo in November vetoed the town's proposed land preservation act, even though other towns, like Warwick and Goshen, have adopted similar laws.

In one example, former town supervisor Alex Jamieson told The Times-Herald Record in 2018 that the town wanted to buy the Sugar Loaf Performing Arts Center and other properties around town to "keep the Hasidic out so that they can’t control the Town Board." The current supervisor, Robert Valentine, said at the time that he and the other town board members "disavow the anti-Semitic, bigoted and insensitive statements" quoted in the article. Jamieson has denied ever making the comments.

The developer in his lawsuit has documented other instances, with video links, in which town officials and Orange County Executive Steve Neuhaus make discriminatory comments about the Greens of Chester and the people they said would be moving there. In a discussion of the Greens at the town board's April 25, 2018, meeting, Neuhaus acknowledged the need to be "careful" when talking about the Hasidic village of Kiryas Joel. But he then says that Kiryas Joel residents, denied welfare and food stamps in Orange County -- where "we are tight with you" -- "(go) directly to Albany for their social service benefits....It was set up that way because of cultural differences."

In her reply to the town attorneys, James referenced the "uptick in instances of anti-Semitism throughout the state." She said she will require Chester to "take affirmative steps to change their policies, conduct training, and undergo monitoring to ensure that they comply with the FHA, eliminate ongoing discrimination and its effects, and prevent discriminatory conduct in the future."