Greens of Chester sues town and county officials for breach of contract and discrimination

| 25 Jul 2019 | 04:40

By Frances Ruth Harris
The Greens of Chester developers have brought a lawsuit against town and county officials that would impose a very high cost on offensive comments they've made over the past several years.
The lawsuit says the officials and their agents engaged in illegal and discriminatory conduct to stop the plaintiff's approved housing development. The plaintiff seeks $80 million, with interest, for each of eight complaints. They also seek punitive damages against town of Chester building inspector James Farr, Orange County Executive Steve Neuhaus and Chester Supervisor Bob Valentine for not less than $20 million.
The breach of contract alleged by the plaintiff includes payment of all attorneys' fees, court fees and other extraneous charges.
Valentine, Farr, Neuhaus, and former supervisor Alex Jamieson are named in the suit against the town and county, with Valentine, Farr, and Neuhaus sued individually as well. Here's one sample of a conversation cited in the lawsuit, from the May 9, 2018, town board meeting:
Jamieson: We’re doing what we can to alleviate 432 Hasidic houses in the Town of Chester. We’re trying.
Valentine: Every day.
Jamieson: There’s nobody on this board, there’s nobody on the board, nobody that works in the town, there’s nobody that wants this development to go through. There’s nobody. There’s nobody who wants the development to go through.
“The project does not seek permits from the county," Neuhaus said in a press release, "and the lawsuit is nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt to shake down county taxpayers and to stop me from speaking against a project that I believe is not in the best interest of the public.”
Jamieson said the lawsuit missed some important facts. "To say that the town under my watch acted inappropriately is just misleading and downright false," he wrote in an email. "As far as the development is concerned, the town had always sought to make parts of that development commercial. We had discussions with the previous owners back before the land was bought by the Greens. The development of 440 homes in Chester was going to impact schools and the town regardless of who the builder was."
He also denied comments attributed to him in the Times Herald-Record last September that Chester was buying the Sugar Loaf Performing Arts Center to keep the Hasidim out.
"I’m already on the record as stating the Times Herald -Record story was false and to this day stand by the fact," he said. "I never said the things that were in that story. I’ve dealt with all walks of life as supervisor and treated everyone with respect regardless of their feelings for me. I hope both sides come to an agreement on this major issue before it’s too late."
Chester Town Board member Cindy Smith said she was not against the development "as long as they follow the rules and permits. I don't have a problem with anyone building."
Valentine did not return a call for comment by press time.
'People here have big guns'
According to the lawsuit, on Nov. 13, 2017, then-Supervisor Jamieson and Valentine, at that time the deputy supervisor, met with the Greens developers in the basement of Chester Town Hall to ask them to build housing for anyone who wanted to buy in. Neuhaus arrived near the end of the meeting.
Valentine urged the developers to build a non-Hasidic community and said he could introduce them to builders who would work with them on a non-Hasidic project.
"This isn't Brooklyn," Valentine said, according to the lawsuit. "People here have big guns."
He said the meeting was off the record and joked that the developers might be recording the conversation.
At an April 25, 2019, town board meeting, Neuhaus said Hasidic Jews got special treatment from Albany and were all on public assistance. He said they didn't go through the regular channels but employed their own distribution system.
"Needless to say, only in the fervid imaginings of Steven M. Newhaus do Hasidic Jews enjoy their own special welfare distribution system from the state," the lawsuit said.
'Little roaches'
The lawsuit says code enforcement officer Mary Ann McKenna received the following comment from a resident through the town's email: “Get rid of this (sic) little roaches ... They are so rude!”
McKenna replied, “I definitely have to agree with you, they don’t care about anyone but themselves.”
The lawsuit says that, at the end of the town board's Nov. 10, 2017, meeting, Valentine pulled one of the Greens' project managers aside and told him that creating homes for Hasidic Jews would create a “huge headache” for Valentine and the rest of the board. Valentine said that, with Legoland New York coming to Goshen, they could rezone areas in Chester for hotels and commercial development.
Time after time in succeeding months, the lawsuit says, Chester officials tried to get the developers to consider developing the area for commerce. The suit says the pressure on the developers was relentless and continuous.
The plaintiff says the size restrictions ultimately imposed on the Greens so limited sewer and water facilities as to make the residential units uninhabitable. The lawsuit says Valentine acknowledged that the restrictions were unfair and undertaken in bad faith.
The plaintiff says the switch to a ward system of electing town representatives, approved by voters last November, is meant to keep Hasidim grouped in one area so they wouldn't "take over" the town. Jamieson said the ward system had to be timed carefully so that the Hasidim would be controlled at the right time in the right way.
At the town's April 25, 2018, board meeting, Neuhaus said the Greens development threatened the school system. During the same meeting, several residents made openly derogatory remarks about the Hasidim.
Democrat Sue Bahren, who is running against Valentine for Chester supervisor this November, weighed in on the lawsuit.
"I would like to, in the strongest possible way, condemn the alleged actions described in the lawsuit," she said in an email. "If proven, these allegations can have extremely damaging and long-lasting effects on the town and its taxpayers. I think that there should be an immediate investigation launched into the alleged activity of these individuals by the Attorney General of the State of New York. I believe that discrimination and intimidation in any form by the town, county or any government entity or individual should not be tolerated."