State attorney general says she's taking action against 'anti-Semitic housing practices' in Chester

Chester. Local residents and officials blast Letitia James' "unprecedented intervention." Town officials say the attorney general is not interested in what the town has to say and is only interested in "acting in the service of one private developer."

05 Dec 2019 | 04:05

New York State Attorney General Letitia James is intervening in a developer $100 million federal discrimination lawsuit against the Town of Chester.

In a statement issued Thursday morning, James said she's "taking action to fight discriminatory housing practices that the Town of Chester and Orange County have utilized to prevent members of the Jewish community from moving to Chester."

She filed a motion against the town and county alleging they have engaged in a "concerted and systematic effort to prevent Hasidic Jewish families from moving to Chester by blocking the construction of a housing development."

The lawsuit that the Greens developers filed in July "outlined countless discriminatory and unnecessary actions that Chester and Orange County have taken to stop the homes from being built in order to prevent Jewish families from purchasing and occupying them, gross violations of the Fair Housing Act," James said in her statement.

“Blocking the construction of homes to prevent a religious group from living in a community is flat out discriminatory,” she said. “This campaign to deny housing to members of the Jewish community is not only a clear violation of our laws, but is antithetical to our basic values and blatantly anti-Semitic. New York has a longstanding commitment to ensure equal housing opportunities for all residents – regardless of race, gender, or religious identity – and we will ensure this commitment is upheld.”

James said the Fair Housing Act dictates that it is unlawful for anyone to refuse to sell or rent a dwelling based on an individuals’ religion, race, sex, national origin, or familial status, among other protected classes.

'Acting in the service of one private developer'

In a statement Thursday afternoon, the town of Chester said the attorney general ignored repeated attempts by the town to tell its side of the story, and was only interested in "acting in the service of one private developer."

"I am disheartened by the timing of the attorney general's actions here and the refusal of the attorney general to hear from the town before seeking to intervene in this matter," said Supervisor Robert Valentine. "I look forward to the federal court's determination that will be based on input from both sides and not on political influence."

New York State Assemblyman Colin J. Schmitt (R-New Windsor) called unacceptable James' "unprecedented intervention by the New York State Attorney General seeking to infringe on a local municipality’s home rule authority."

"The attorney general is not representing the citizens of Chester or Orange County by taking this extraordinary step," he said in a statement. "On the contrary, she is seeking to directly prevent the duly elected Chester town government from representing Chester residents who want to preserve the rural character of their community through longstanding zoning and planning laws.

"For years, the Attorney General’s office stood silent as the illegal practice called blockbusting has impacted South Blooming Grove and other communities in the Hudson Valley."

Schmitt invited James "to join me in Chester to meet with a diverse group of community members to understand the real issues at hand here and the significant impacts they have on all members of the community.”

Fair housing

The discussion in the community was similarly harsh against James' intervention. Some said it was the Greens that was practicing discrimination, since non-Hasidim would not be allowed to buy property in the development.

Ed Winters wrote in a letter to the editor, "Ironically, the Attorney General herself, as a person of African descent, would not be permitted to live in any of these segregated communities. What’s more, even if she could get in, as a woman she would also be subject to the narrow codes of conduct for women that have been fought against passionately in the United States for more than five decades."

Diana Christine wrote on The Chronicle's Facebook page, "Helping a group who is actively and openly working to exclude all 'outsiders' to build their own private, non-HUD compliant housing that only they can buy into? hold on, somethings not right here..."

Greens developer Livy Schwartz previously told The Chronicle that is not the case, and that everyone is welcome to buy in.

"Any person interested in purchasing a home with modern finishes, amenities, and open space is welcome at the Greens," he stated in a September letter to the editor. "Once the offering plan for the Greens is approved by the state, the Greens will be marketed through a sales office, website, and licensed brokers on the Multiple Listing Service."

Stephen Keahon disagreed with Gov. Cuomo's recent rejection of Chester's proposed Land Preservation Fund, in which the town would have set aside money to buy open land or the development rights to land. He said Chester’s environmental preservation efforts, including the proposed purchase of development rights, "has been discussed as far back as 2013 and our Preservation planning committee has been working on it since 2017. Our Preservation plan is consistent with our Comprehensive Plan which was adopted in 2015.This timeline is proof that our Preservation bill is not a knee jerk reaction and that we are modeling our efforts the same way our neighboring town of Warwick."

Keahon said that without "a smart long-term growth plan," farmland in Orange County will be lost, historic properties will be destroyed by flooding, and aquifers will be sapped.

Mary Conway Luciana worried about the pileup of legal costs.

"Wonderful this town should be bankrupt soon & the school district will be next," she wrote on Preserve Chester. "Who suffers us, no one will be able to sell their homes, nor afford the taxes."

County attorney Langdon Chapman said in a statement that the Greens' lawsuit has no merit, since the Greens property is not in the county sewer district. In fact, he said, it's the state, responding to residents' concerns that the county shared with the health department, that is requiring updated information about the Greens' proposed wells.

"The attorney general has not identified a single permit being withheld by the county," Chapman said. "Asking the state to do its job and review constituent concerns about water quality is perfectly reasonable."

Michael Sussman, a civil rights lawyer who lives in Chester welcomed James' intervention.

"Good for her," he said. "This is fully warranted and I strongly support her action. The comments and conduct of our elected officials has been shameful."

In their own words

The Greens is one of four discrimination lawsuits, including a gender discrimination lawsuit, that the town is now facing. The officials' own words, captured on video and email, form the basis of the Greens' lawsuit.

The town's insurer last month notified each official that it will not "defend or indemnify the town or its officials" in the Greens suit, and referred to the town's "dishonest, fraudulent, criminal or malicious acts or omissions."

Summit Risk Services, the third-party administrator on behalf of Selective Insurance Company of New York, referred to Neuhaus "pledging at a Town Board meeting that The Greens would never receive a sewer permit from him and invoking religious and racial stereotypes in connection with Hasidic Jews."

The lawsuit quotes Jamieson saying, "There’re nobody on this Board, there’s nobody on the Board, nobody that works in the Town, there’s nobody that want this development to go through. There’s nobody. There’s nobody who wants the development to go through." (May 9, 2018 meeting at 1:30:30, bit.ly/Chester-01).

A day after James announced her intervention, the Greens filed an amended complaint that adds examples of alleged discriminatory conduct by town and county officials, including an early meeting the plaintiffs characterize as "ominous" and comments by members of the public at a town meeting (please see related story).

'Fully approved for residential development'

The Greens developers purchased the 117-acre property in October 2017. Their lawsuit cites comments by officials, documented on video, stating their intention to keep Hasidic families out of town.

James noted that the development had been "fully approved" for residential development under the previous owner. She agreed with the lawsuit's premise that town and county officials violated a 2010 settlement agreement by passing a law restricting the size of the houses that could be built. Local officials have also imposed obstacles to thwart construction, she said, including "costly and unnecessary requirements" with regard to the reroute of a new sewer waste line and the Greens' water supply permit.

"After the developer complied with each of these unnecessary requests, the Town and County denied all building permit applications, even though the developer clearly satisfied the requirements necessary to be granted the permits," she said.

James said she was taking this action as a stand against rising antisemitism. Quoting the Anti-Defamation League, she said the number of anti-Semitic incidents recorded in the state increased by about 90 percent from 2016 to 2017.

“As we have seen an alarming rise in the rates of anti-Semitic incidents in New York and across the country, this type of intolerance and discriminatory behavior, especially at the hands of local government, is truly despicable," she continued. "Intolerance towards others only fosters hate and makes our communities weaker."

Related documents:

The attorney general's proposal to intervene on behalf of the Greens of Chester in seeking relief from the defendants: town of Chester building inspector James Farr; Supervisor Robert Valentine; board members Cindy Smith, Ryan Wensley, Orlando Perez, and Vincent Finizia; former supervisor Alex Jamieson, and County Executive Steve Neuhaus.

Cathy Seibel, U.S. District Judge, grants attorney general's motion to intervene.

The Greens of Chester complaint filed July 19, 2019.

The attorney general's case is being led by:
Jessica Clarke, Bureau Chief of the Civil Rights Bureau
Sania W. Khan, Assistant Attorney General in the Civil Rights Bureau
Vinita Kamath, Assistant Attorney General in Charge of the Poughkeepsie Regional Office,
Clarence Okoh, an intern at the Civil Rights Bureau
The Regional Offices are led by the Director of Regional Offices, Jill Faber; and the Civil Rights Bureau is led by Chief Deputy Attorney General for Social Justice, Meghan Faux. Both are overseen by First Deputy Attorney General Jennifer Levy.