‘Keep the Hasidic Out’: A Small-Town Housing
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Developers say local leaders in the Hudson Valley are blocking a housing project in order to keep out Hasidic Jews.
Joseph Landau, one of the developers behind the Greens at Chester, oversees construction of the project’s infrastructure.CreditCreditStephanie Keith for The New York Times
By Sharon Otterman
Aug. 14, 2019
CHESTER, N.Y. — In a peaceful corner of the Hudson Valley, a broad expanse of land sits at the ready for hundreds of homes ranging between 2,500 and 3,400 square feet, with views of the surrounding hills. There will be a recreation center and tennis courts, and nearly half of the development’s 117 acres will be kept as open space.
But if it were up to town officials, the houses would never be built. They openly fret about the size and density of the 431-unit development, the Greens at Chester, and even confess wariness about the likely intended home buyers: Hasidic Jews.
“There’s nobody on the board, there’s nobody that works in the town, there’s nobody that wants this development to go through,” Alexander Jamieson, the former town supervisor of Chester, said at a public meeting in May 2018. “There’s nobody.”
Town officials have repeatedly placed obstacles in the developers’ path since they bought the land in 2017: restrictions on the size of the houses they can build, delays on issuing building permits and a request to relocate the main road by 10 feet.
“We’re doing what we can to alleviate 432 Hasidic houses in the town of Chester,” Mr. Jamieson said at thatheated town meeting.
“Every day,” chimed in Robert Valentine, the current town supervisor, who at that point was on the town board.
Angry residents at the meeting talked of how school taxes could rise, and public resources could be stretched in the town, about 60 miles north of New York City. They spoke of fears that the development would one day resemble Kiryas Joel, a Hasidic village about nine miles away that is overcrowded and has ranked among the poorest communities in the nation.
The developers, Greens at Chester, L.L.C., cite these statements and others in a federal lawsuit that accuses the town, Orange County and individual local officials of discrimination, contending that they assume that the home buyers will be Hasidic because some of the developers are.
The Orange County executive, Steven M. Neuhaus, a Chester resident and its former town supervisor, suggesteddelay tactics, including retesting the water and denying sewer permitting, at a meeting a month earlier, the lawsuit recounts.
“We can pressure the developer to either go commercial, which I think we should do, or we can buy it,” he said at an April 25 meeting, a video of which was posted online. “If you want to pay a little bit more to save the town, that might be an option.”
“I’m trying to slow things down because I don’t think the school district can handle it,” Mr. Neuhaus added. “I don’t think my town can handle it.”
The lawsuit, filed in July, asks for $100 million in damages for breach of contract and purported violations of fair housing and other anti-discrimination laws.
“If you show up to a public hearing, you can hear what the voters are saying, which is ‘keep the Hasidic out,’” said John Petroccione, the civil engineer who designed the project 25 years ago, and is working with the developers to complete it.
The 117-acre property has long been the subject of a battle between developers and the town, whose residents have opposed development of the site.CreditStephanie Keith for The New York Times
Mr. Petroccione said that the town has fought the proposed development since 1985, when the former farm was purchased by Wilbur Fried, a non-Hasidic developer. Mr. Fried also wanted to build hundreds of homes at the site.
Mr. Fried, 91, recalled in an interview how for 28 years, he fought off “not in my backyard” concerns about overdevelopment from Chester residents. He eventually sued the town in federal court. In 2010, he and the town settled, and the town granted him the right to build 431 homes there.
“I probably have the record for having the longest subdivision approval process in the State of New York,” Mr. Fried said.
But as the town slow-walked the approvals, the demographics in Orange County changed. A small community of Satmar Hasidim, who speak Yiddish and practice a form of charismatic Judaism that tries to limit modern influences, arrived in the area in the 1970s, seeking a peaceful place to raise their children away from increasingly crowded Brooklyn.
Their numbers grew steadily, in part, because of their typically large families. Kiryas Joel, a section of the Town of Monroe where they settled, now has 24,000 people and became its own town, Palm Tree, in January. Offshoot communities have been formed nearby in Blooming Grove, among other places in the county.
In 2017, Mr. Fried sold the lot in Chester with its court-won approvals for $12 million to the current developers. The city then granted permits to clear the land and build roads. But once town residents learned in 2018 that the new owners were Hasidic, town meetings were called and things came to a grinding halt, the lawsuit charges.
School costs are one major concern, residents said at town meetings. While Hasidic Jews typically attend their own religious schools, local districts in New York have to pay for a percentage of their busing costs and special education services.
The Chester school district, in a Q. and A., projected the development could raise school taxes in the town by between $92 and $524 per household, using an estimate that between 1,720 and 2,580 students would live at the Greens at Chester.
Last year, the Chester school district had a total of 993 students, according to state data.
There are also political concerns. Hasidic Jews tend to vote in blocs, increasing their political leverage. The arrival of hundreds of new voters in a town of 12,000 has the possibility to remake the political balance in Chester, as it has in other towns, Mr. Jamieson said. The town recently voted to switch to a ward system of representation in preparation for major demographic shift.