County Contests Kiryas Joel’s Final Environmental Review

By Yvonne Marcotte, Epoch Times
August 26, 2015 Updated: August 26, 2015    

GOSHEN—Orange County officials say they aren’t satisfied with the environmental review done by the village of Kiryas Joel to support its proposal to annex land in the town of Monroe. County Executive Steven Neuhaus says the final generic environmental impact statement approved by Kiryas Joel on Aug. 17 is inadequate and the “overall public interest” isn’t served by its plans to annex up to 507 acres in Monroe.

The boards of Monroe and Kiryas Joel are expected to vote on annexation by Sept. 8. Leaders of the ultra-Orthodox Satmar Hasidic Jews say the village needs the additional land for its growing population. Some opponents in the surrounding suburbs fear more congestion. Water quality and quantity are among the county’s concerns.

The proposal is not just a simple municipal boundary change.

The county’s Department of Planning on Aug. 21 released comments about the Village of Kiryas Joel’s Final Generic Environmental Impact Statement (FGEIS). The department’s review stated: “This proposed action has clear subsequent and related actions that cannot be segmented from the annexation proposal.”

The findings also conclude that “there are gross deficiencies in the FGEIS concerning environmental, fiscal, and social impact analysis of each annexation alternative.” There is an alternative annexation proposal of 164 acres.

Concerns

“The county continues to have serious concerns relative to the proposed annexations,” Orange County Executive Steven M. Neuhaus said. The county’s review found four major areas of concern in Kiryas Joel’s FGEIS:

  • The proposal is not just a simple municipal boundary change.
  • The village’s environmental analysis must go beyond 10 years.
  • Water quality and quantity impacts nearby municipalities as Kiryas Joel develops and has not been adequately researched.
  • The alternatives to annexation proposed by Kiryas Joel are inadequate.

“We have advised the Village of Kiryas Joel to conduct further research to address the issues we have raised,” said David Church, Orange County’s Commissioner of Planning. The county hired the Center for Governmental Research (CGR) of Rochester and their subcontractor, The Chazen Companies of Poughkeepsie, on May 22 to research the potential impacts of Kiryas Joel’s proposed annexations.

The county legislature passed a supplemental appropriation of $200,000 to the 2015 budget by a vote of 20-1, which allowed CGR to conduct its study. Church oversaw the analysis, which was separate from the mandatory environmental review that Kiryas Joel conducted on its own.

The study concludes that the Hasidic community will continue to grow. By 2040, the projected population of the village will be about 96,000. “It is this potential for explosive growth that feeds much of the concern within neighboring communities,” the study says.

“The rights of Orthodox Jewish landowners to develop their land in housing are no more nor less than the rights of other landowners,” the county study says. “The rest of the county has the right to ensure that this process of development is sustainable and is consistent with community standards, as reflected in environmental and land use law and precedent.”

Public assistance among the village’s residents is high and, at 21 percent, is the largest share of Medicaid spending in the county.

The report said, “Members and supporters of the community plus landowners willing to develop or sell land have undeniable rights in their property that includes ability to develop that property for housing—within established legal limits.”

The leadership of Kiryas Joel is entitled to pursue its obligation to provide housing for its new families. “But that right is not unlimited just because this is a religious community,” the report continues. 

“While it can choose to be set apart culturally, Kiryas Joel and the larger Orthodox Jewish community still must comply with laws passed by Orange County and the State of New York that are intended to ensure that growth is substantial and balances the interests of all of the region’s residents,” the report says. “These conflicts can and should be settled through negotiated agreements, not through the courts.”

Public Assistance

The county-funded report says public assistance among the village’s residents is high and, at 21 percent, is the largest share of Medicaid spending in the county. Other public assistance benefits to the village are “well above the village’s six percent share of the population.”

The report also says the Kiryas Joel Union Free School District is a major recipient of almost $7 million in federal funds as compared to the $1.3 million the Monroe-Woodbury Central School District receives.

The assessment makes the case that the village operates outside law, claiming it does not comply with state land use laws. The assessment said the village also does not comply with changes in zoning ordinance, the issuance of special use permits, or site plan and subdivision approvals.

The village’s ability to handle fires is also said to be a problem. Because of Hasidic restrictions on the shaving of beards, the Kyrias Joel volunteer fire fighters are not able to wear properly fire fighting equipment, which means that in the case of serious blazes, Kyrias Joel must rely on aid from other departments.

According to the assessment, “This reliance on outside resources to extinguish routine fires could be interpreted to violate the Orange County Mutual Aid plan.” The expansion of the village will make this situation worse, according to the assessment.

The county’s study reports that over the past 5 years the county has spent $1.9 million on outside counsel, while Kiryas Joel has spent $2 million.

The study’s executive summary concludes, “Instead of settling these matters in the courts, Orange County leaders would better serve taxpayers by working to establish a climate in which growth can occur with the cooperation of municipal, county, regional and state agencies.” 

The Mid-Hudson News reported that the attorney representing Kiryas Joel, Michael Sterthous, wrote a letter to Church about “inaccuracies” in the county’s review. The attorney listed seven objections regarding the claims that the village does not comply to open meetings laws, that the village has pushed the sewer infrastructure to the limits, that the town’s well fields have limited capacity, that the town’s population has a disproportionately large number of Section 8 vouchers, that the town does not comply with the Clean Water Act, that the town does not comply with state land use laws, and that the town relies heavily on “mutual aid.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

To contact this reporter, email yvonne.marcotte@epochtimes.com.