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Governor Gives Green Light to KJ

Last week, New York State political pundits were stunned to discover that Governor Cuomo decided to veto two bills that would have made it difficult for the Village of Kiryas Joel in Orange County to annex a significant amount of land. The decision was heralded as a victory for the Satmar community as well as for all those who feel that the opposition to the growth of the village was unfair and probably unconstitutional.

Ever since its inception in 1974, the Village of Kiryas Joel struggled to survive among its occasionally hostile neighbors but has ultimately thrived. Rabbi Gershon Schlesinger, Executive Board Chairman of UJCare, remembers how the revered Satmar Rebbe himself, Rav Yoel Teitelbaum zt”l, moved into one of the original homes in the area together with several dedicated pioneering families and lived there until his passing in 1979. He was determined to create an enclave in Upstate New York that would allow his chassidim to bring up their children in an environment sheltered from the negative influences of city life

It didn’t take long for others to follow those original families. After five years, there were 500 people living in Kiryas Joel and by 2010 over 20 thousand people called Kiryas Joel their home. Today there are close to 30,000 frum people in Kiryas Joel. It is by and large a young and vibrant community, with a complete independent infrastructure of Jewish life including shuls, bus services, shopping, conveniences, and the UTA Yeshiva system which services over 5,000 students.

The village’s growth bli ayin hora has been exponential, with close to 400 young couples getting married each year. The 1.1 square mile area is simply too small to accommodate the natural growth of its residents, so village leaders began considering the possibility of annexing several hundred acres of land adjacent to Kiryas Joel which is owned by the Vaad Hakiryah and several private individuals. Schlesinger says that the legal procedure necessary to annex land has been properly followed with the appropriate reviews of impact on environment and effect on traffic being satisfactorily addressed. “It took years and years of work,” says Schlesinger, “on traffic and environmental studies. Everything was done in a transparent way and it can be viewed by the public on the village website. It was all done the right way.” Annexation is important, Schlesinger explains, because the Village of Kiryas Joel provides services for its residents such as basic water and sewage that the outlying Town of Monroe doesn’t provide. They also have different zoning laws.

But the anticipated growth of Kiryas Joel became a source of anxiety to some of its neighbors who perhaps resent the insular nature of the community and its tendency to vote as a bloc in general elections. Over the years there have been various court cases and lawsuits brought between the Village and the County of Monroe or the Town of Woodbury. But in the end, says Schlesinger, “the Constitution prevails.”

Most recently, a group that calls itself United Monroe decided to oppose the proposed annexation plan, citing constitutional and environmental reasons. Local Assemblyman James Skoufis tried to introduce two bills to the State legislature that would have made the annexation approval process more difficult. “Until now,” Schlesinger explains, “the Town Board needed a simple majority, three out of five, to approve. The new bills would have required a super majority, four out of five, which could have resulted in the entire plan being derailed.” The bills actually passed in both the Assembly and the State Senate. But in a dramatic decision rendered at 10:30 PM last Wednesday, an hour and a half before the deadline, the governor decided to veto both bills, essentially giving Kiryas Joel the green light to expand.

Reactions to the veto were swift in coming. Skoufis called the decision “flat-out wrong” and said, “Sadly, Governor Cuomo’s veto message appears to be nothing more than fabricated reasoning to reach a predetermined outcome.” County Executive Steven Neuhaus added, “I’m disappointed that the bill was vetoed and obviously would have preferred that Orange County be given a formal role in the annexation process.”

Ari Felberman, the village’s government relations coordinator, reacted by saying: “We appreciate that Governor Cuomo was able to see through the angry rhetoric being advanced by Assemblyman Skoufis and looked at these bills for what they really are, a thinly veiled attempt to stop the natural growth of the peaceful family-oriented community of Kiryas Joel.”

State Senator Simcha Felder’s office released a statement saying: “Governor Cuomo was absolutely correct to veto this unconstitutional legislation. The bills, which were shamefully rushed through the Senate and Assembly, were clearly aimed at preventing the annexation of a community that has supported development in the region, encouraging the growth of nearby communities. Those communities, sadly, are now opposing Kiryas Joel’s expansion.

“As the Governor wrote in his veto, the bills were in violation of the New York State Constitution, which affords all New Yorkers the same protection and rights under the law. I thank Governor Cuomo for his leadership and for his refusal to sign two unconstitutional bills into law.”

Agudath Israel of America applauded the governor’s veto, saying, “existing New York State law provides a detailed mechanism through which land may be annexed by a neighboring jurisdiction. “ According to the Agudah statement, although the opposing bills “were neutral on their faces, not mentioning Kiryas Joel by name, it was clear to all that their sole purpose was to block the growth of the chassidic community of Kiryas Joel.” Said Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zweibel, Executive Vice President of Agudath Israel, “It is gratifying that Governor Cuomo saw these facially neutral bills for what they really were: an effort to prevent the community of Kiryas Joel from growing.” He added, “as the annexation process will now move forward, we urge all parties to proceed in a spirit of good faith and constructive cooperation.”

What made the governor decide to take this unusual step? As Senator Felder writes, the laws for annexation are already clearly spelled out in the Constitution. But Rabbi Schlesinger adds that the governor’s generous action marks the extension of the Cuomo legacy. “Boruch Hashem,” says Schlesinger, “he is his father’s son. Back in the days when we had the school board district issues, his father Mario Cuomo was very helpful to Kiryas Joel and now [his] son is helpful to us as well. We were hoping he would come out in favor of it, and we are very grateful to the governor for realizing that these bill were merely a ploy to circumvent the laws and the Constitution of New York State.” Felder added, “There’s a real history here. The governor’s father, may he rest in peace, was a true advocate for Kiryas Joel. He deserves a tremendous amount of praise for defending them throughout their application process.”

As the dust settles, what happens next? Rabbi Schlesinger says that Kiryas Joel will continue to move forward with its annexation process. “There will be a thirty day review process and then the Town of Monroe and the Village of Kiryas Joel vote. This should happen sometime at the end of August.” But County Executive Neuhaus is still not backing down, saying, “We will continue with our own thorough review and make recommendations on the proposed annexation.”

Is the county justified in its objections to the village’s growth? Are they genuinely concerned about the overcrowding, the sewage issues, and the traffic congestion? Rabbi Schlesinger doesn’t think so. “It’s nonsense,” he says. “Look at the area we are talking about. The world famous Woodbury Common Premium Outlets shopping center is located here and is welcomed with open arms. They recently expanded their parking lot by about 1,000 parking spaces just last year.” The surrounding area and its school district is reportedly growing rapidly, even without the Kiryas Joel planned expansion. Additionally, Rabbi Schlesinger points out that recently, when plans to permit a billion dollar mega-hotel and casino to be built were introduced, the Village of Harriman was delighted to serve as host “In that case,” says Schlesinger, “somehow nobody was so concerned about the impact on the environment.”

But Senator Felder says, “This is not about anti-Semitism. This is about equity and about protecting the Constitution. People must be treated equally and fairly and no one gets to choose who gets treated one way or another.”

The issue of opposition to growth and expansion presents itself time and time again, whether in Monroe or in Ramapo, in Bloomingburg or even in Brooklyn. But hopefully the results will always be the same. When citizens have the law on their side, they have the right to build and develop and live as they please. Despite the opposition, justice will eventually prevail.