We weren’t trying to keep Orthodox Jews out, town says

Woodcliff Lake was not trying to keep out an Orthodox Jewish Congregation, the borough’s attorney said Thursday, one day after the U.S. Attorney’s Office filed a civil rights lawsuit against the town.

Woodcliff Lake Borough Attorney Ron Dario declined to comment hours after the 17-page complaint was filed in U.S. District Court in New Jersey Wednesday, but sent an email statement to NJ Advance Media Thursday afternoon.

“We have in the past and will continue to cooperate with any investigation into the borough’s policies and procedures,” Dario said. “We maintain that our borough is non discriminatory and welcoming for people of all faiths.”

The lawsuit alleges that Woodcliff Lake officials took steps to keep Valley Chabad from building on three separate sites over the course of eight years and denied a zoning application for the congregation to expand its current building on Overlook Drive.

Dario said Thursday that the issue is not one of religious discrimination, it’s strictly a matter of building size.

“Valley Chabad continues to demand the construction of a 17,000 sq. foot facility with seating for 400 plus congregants, on a single family home plot,” he said, adding the site is less than half the size required by zoning laws. “The fact that the zoning application required two dozen variances shows how ill-suited the property is for their proposed use.”

The borough attorney also denied that officials interfered with Valley Chabad’s attempts to purchase land.

The lawsuit alleges that between 2005 and 2013, the borough blocked the congregation’s attempts by expressing interest in rezoning or acquiring the sites through eminent domain — after Valley Chabad was under contract to purchase them. The borough eventually acquired two of the properties and rezoned the third, according to the complaint.

“In fact, the borough has attempted to assist Valley Chabad by identifying other larger plots that can easily accommodate their needs,” Dario said. “For reasons unknown to the borough, Valley Chabad has walked away from other projects and failed to entertain the idea of building on approved locations within the borough, which were in conformity with the borough’s land use regulations.”

Valley Chabad filed its own federal lawsuit against the borough in Nov. 2016, which is in the discovery phase.

“In essence they’re both addressing the same issue, the fact that the Chabad’s religious exercise has been burdened as a result of the borough’s action,” Roman Storzer, Valley Chabad’s attorney said Wednesday.

Strozer said between minimum lot size, setbacks and environmental restrictions “we’re arguing there’s no place where the Chabad could locate a house of worship.”

Dario said the borough just wants Valley Chabad to conform to the borough’s regulations.

“We are saddened by the response of the Valley Chabad in their choice to take this action against our quiet New Jersey town, comprised of hard working people of all faiths, that welcomed them into our community,” he said.

Allison Pries may be reached at apries@njadvancemedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @AllisonPries. Find NJ.com on Facebook.

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