The Ramapough Lenape Indian tribe has taken its fight against Mahwah Township and a group of homeowners — over a 14-acre tribal prayer ground — to federal court.
The tribe filed a lawsuit late Monday in U.S. District Court in Newark to stop $12,500 per day in fines from being lodged by the township. The tribe claims the hefty fines are discriminatory land use enforcement for the Split Rock Sweetwater prayer ground on Halifax Road in Mahwah.
Mahwah Mayor Bill Laforet said Tuesday that the township just wants the tribe to get permits, as any other landowner would have to do.
“We’ve given them a year and a half to obtain the necessary approvals to do what they want and its unfortunate it has come to this,” the mayor said in a phone interview.
The township filed a restraining order last May prohibiting the tribe from using the land, which was later vacated by a Superior Court Judge. That case was decided in Nov. 2017 when a judge found the tribe liable for 39 of 43 zoning violations. The decision is being appealed, tribe members say.
The property in dispute, which was gifted to the tribe in 1995 by the developer of the Ramapo Hunt & Polo Club housing development, sits along the Ramapo River at the entrance to the Polo Club, an enclave of million-dollar homes.
In an April 24 letter to the Ramapoughs, the township said it will issue 10 summones per day for zoning violations, retroactive to March 9. As of Tuesday, the tribe owes $492,000.
“The purpose of the lawsuit is to defend our rights to the small remaining amount of land we have left,” said Owl, a Ramapough tribe member. “We are descendents of the orginal people of Manhattan — and this is all we have left.”
Owl said the pressure from town officials is different this time because they’ve taken down the structures that were an issue in the past — tee pees and tents — and now the town is targeting them for a sacred stone alter and a prayer circle, which consists of tree trunks standing upright, some of which are adorn with masks.
He also believes, based on comments made by at least one resident at a township council meeting, that the township is running up exorbitant fines against the tribe so that it will be forced to forfeit the land.
“They deny that we’re soverign. They deny that we’re indigenious. They refer to our stone alter as pile of rocks,” Owl said. “They’re attacking us.”
The tribe says in the lawsuit that Mahwah is “carrying on a historical pattern and practice of harrassment” and is acting on “behest of” the Polo Club housing association.
A call to an attorney representing the Polo Club, which is also named in the federal lawsuit, was not immediately returned.
The Polo Club is involved in its own lawsuit with the tribe over use of the prayer ground.
The Ramapoughs are seeking a jury trial and asking the court to prevent township officials from fining the tribe for using the prayer ground. It also aims to stop the town’s order for the Ramapoughs to remove their sacred alter and prayer circle, an annulment of fines, costs and attorneys fees for the lawsuit, compensatory and punitive damages equal to two times the cumulative fines sought by Mahwah and other relief the court deems appropriate.