After the lawsuit was filed, Westlake relented on the screened porch, a feature which other houses in the development have as well. However, they asked the court to dismiss the rabbi’s request for access to the gate and construction of a small path leading to the gate as accommodations that these laws do not require them to allow. In an ruling yesterday the judge let most of the counts stand though, dismissing one and consolidating two others, but leaving in counts that would require both the path construction and gate access. The suit will now proceed to discovery and trial unless it is settled first.
Much like for religious beliefs, special arrangements may need to be made to preserve the rights of those with handicaps. The protections provided by the Fair Housing Act require that a disabled person be allowed to make physical modifications to their home and exceptions to housing related policies as needed to “afford such person full enjoyment of the premises”:
(3) For purposes of this subsection, discrimination includes–
(A) a refusal to permit, at the expense of the handicapped person, reasonable modifications of existing premises occupied or to be occupied by such person if such modifications may be necessary to afford such person full enjoyment of the premises, except that, in the case of a rental, the landlord may where it is reasonable to do so condition permission for a modification on the renter agreeing to restore the interior of the premises to the condition that existed before the modification, reasonable wear and tear excepted.
(B) a refusal to make reasonable accommodations in rules, policies, practices, or services, when such accommodations may be necessary to afford such person equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling;
A recent letter (shown below) sent by an attorney retained by Rabbi Philip Lefkowitz, a handicapped homeowner in the Westlake Golf & Country Club of Jackson, details the rabbi’s travails in trying to get the homeowners association to afford him full enjoyment of his house. If allowed access to an existing gate in a common area, it would enable him to attend religious services without pushing his wheelchair on a busy road. His requests to build a screened porch which could be used for religious observance were denied, despite other houses having a similar porch. And recently, the association bylaws were amended in a manner that would seem to prevent him from worshipping with a group at in his home:
1.38 (New) “Residential purposes” shall mean used solely as a place to live. Holding or conducting regular meetings, presentations, assemblies or other gatherings, to which members of the public are invited, shall not constitute a residential purpose and are prohibited. For purposes of this restriction “members of the public” shall mean individuals other than personal friends and members of a resident’s family.
Now, we’re sure there are perfectly perfunctory reasons for all this: the gate was intended for emergency vehicles only, screened porches are only allowed on some models of homes in Westlake but not others, and the association board had a sudden but unrelated need to clarify the word “residential” in their bylaws.
But to what end does the homeowners association continue to deny what seem like otherwise reasonable accommodations to a disabled resident?
The DOJ’s request focuses more on the recent school and dormitory ordinances and asks for 10 years worth of zoning and planning documents. Presumably this is to determine if the new bans are part of a coherent long-term development plan or created to target land use by a specific religion or group, thus falling afoul of RLUIPA and the Fair Housing Act.
There is a bit of irony here: while these ordinances were being conceived, Jackson actually had their attorneys send their own request to the NJ Attorney General and the US Department of Justice for investigations into housing practices:
They allege blockbusting by the Orthodox Jewish community, a charge which centers in general around real-estate professionals spreading fear in order to lower housing prices. Jackson’s proof? In addition to citing rumor, they give links to two videos of speeches, one where individual Orthodox Jews are encouraged to move to new neighborhoods, and the other in Yiddish (we bet the federal government sent it straight to their language specialists). Hardly compelling evidence that there is a professional effort to scare people from their houses.
We do however feel that there are some peddling panic in Jackson and scaring people into selling. Not the Orthodox Jews moving in, but so-called “strong” and “watchdog” community groups that harp on their every move and constantly invoke hyperbolic statements about the inevitable destruction of Jackson Township.
In response to the Township’s letter, the NJ Attorney General declined to investigate while the DOJ doesn’t seem to have ever responded. In the end though, both turned their sights to discriminatory behavior by Jackson officials themselves.
As reported in a previous article, Jackson officials and staff have been spying on homes suspected of harboring prayer services, staking out the same houses on a regular basis and counting the number of people entering and leaving with “bibles”. In some cases, the same houses were watched over a period of multiple months.
One might wonder why Township Attorney Jean Cipriani didn’t alert anyone to the pointlessness of this activity; after all, while courts have determined that towns can issue violations of noise or other nuisance ordinances if applicable, prayer service in one’s home cannot be regulated in NJ using zoning regardless of how many people or books are involved. The opinion in Farhi v. Deal Borough Commisioners states:
The court therefore holds that the guaranty of freedom of worship as set forth by our State Constitution forecloses any use by a municipal authority of its zoning power to prohibit the free exercise of religious activity in the privacy of one’s home.
Not only have we not found a warning to this effect, but it seems that Cipriani had drafted an ordinance to forbid such prayer gatherings. Unfortunately, we will probably never know how such an ordinance would attempt to circumvent the US Constitution, NJ Constitution and prior case law, as the text of this ordinance is likely considered privileged and deliberative.
However, even if Cipriani did tell them, Jackson doesn’t exactly have a perfect record of following her advice. Take the following warning about how passing a resolution about neighborhood watch groups could lead to penalties in court:
The resolution was then adopted four days later by the council.
Happy Thanksgiving dear reader. One thing we here at Jackson Leaks are thankful for is the freedom of association provided by the United States Constitution and free exercise of religion required therein as well as by the NJ State Constitution. As determined by prior court cases, the right to congregate and worship in one’s home may not, in itself, be limited by the government in NJ.
Why should the government monitor what lawful activities one is doing in the privacy of their home and with whom they are doing them? After all, using your home for other activities is absolutely commonplace, whether it be a home business, regular club, play group, or prayer service. We should be careful about declaring certain activities that are otherwise legal to be subversive when done in one’s home.
So then by what right are Jackson officials giving orders for houses to be put under surveillance without some serious allegation of illegal behavior,
sending spies in unmarked cars to monitor houses on a regular basis,
who keep detailed notes on the otherwise benign activities at private properties.
Why are private citizens being enlisted to inform on and photograph each others daily routines,
with high-up Jackson officials then following up on surveillance in person?
The only thing they seem to find problematic is that this is a waste of “valuable time and money”. While true, they are missing the larger issue: they are government backed predators hunting Jews. In 2017. For no reason other than they gather together with friends and family.
Today they are monitoring Jews and private groups. Tomorrow, what will they be adding to their list?
In September 2016, Jackson passed Ordinance 21-16 forbidding the non-residential use of trailers (i.e. “office trailers”) in every area of town except under very limited circumstances. One is still allowed to have trailers on their property for the purpose of living in them though. Was this request in response to a rash of businesses popping up in trailers around Jackson?
In fact, the ordinance was precipitated by a request from Mayor Reina a month earlier. In his “travels” through “several different communities”, said the Mayor, he had noticed that trailers were being used by “congregations of different faith based groups” to “accommodate needs”. An ordinance must be passed to prevent the “possibilities of it happening here”.
Essentially, not in response to trailer problems in Jackson at all, but as a preventative measure against religious use seen in nearby communities. The final ordinance reflects his observations about the ways in which certain “faith based groups” employ trailers and restricts only non-residential use of trailers. But, if trailers are the issue, why not make an ordinance that limits the size, number and placement of any trailers in Jackson regardless of use.
Also, which faith based groups and what nearby communities? It doesn’t say, if only there was a way we could figure it out…
The ban comes up again in a different email from the Mayor, addressing “issues” that Jackson is facing. In the same sentence, he talks about how he and the council are working to “no longer allow the use of trailers”, “not allow non permanent structures to be placed in front yards”, and handle the “issue regarding the use of ERUV wires”.
Are these three items unconnected, or maybe mentioned together as they have a common thread? They must be important to get rid of considering that the township has been “trying to acquire more code enforcement officers”.
The context here seems apparent, at least to us: The flood of ordinances in the past few years coincides with an increase in Orthodox families moving to Jackson, and suddenly “seldom enforced” half-century old ordinances must be aggressively applied and all sorts of new bans introduced against currently permitted items that people think the Orthodox might want to use. This trailer ban targets a specific use that the Mayor thinks is associated with this “faith based group”, not all trailers in Jackson. It’s no wonder that Jackson is being sued.
A single prankster commenting on an otherwise unrelated news story sent up the alarm that an unofficial candidate was trying to get themselves on the Jackson School Board. So may we present the winners of the 2017 Jackson School Board Elections Write-in Contest:
Given that there are dozens of different names and even the top write-ins got at most 0.1% of the vote, it doesn’t seem like there was any concerted effort to elect someone by write-in. Maybe don’t get your news from the comments section?
Jackson Township enters muddy waters in search of long elusive “right-of-way” violations.
As the OPRA documents continue to pile in more interesting facts are starting to come to light. Initially, the Jackson Code Enforcement Department determined that eruvin (plural of eruv) were not a violation of any Jackson code and planned on leaving them be. However, then politics came into the picture and Code Enforcement had to change course.
After many months of eruv complaints, the town determined in April that a “right-of-way” ordinance, passed in 1964 to ensure that streets and sidewalks were passable and free of snow and ice, could be applied to the thin poles in the grass as well. This “seldom enforced” statute would now need to be enforced vigorously. Mayor Mike Reina states that this was the result of a “cry to increase code enforcement from our residents” in the first half of 2017 about “items in the right of way with examples such as hockey and soccer nets, basketball hoops, skateboard ramps, furniture, tires, brush and grass not being cut”. However, almost all complaints found in any emails we have pertain to eruvin (there is a single complaint about business signs).
How does one start enforcing an ordinance after 50 years? Township Attorney Jean Cipriani explains that the ordinance “applies to all obstructions in the right of way and should be uniformly applied throughout the Township”. This is likely taking into consideration the situation in Tenafly Eruv Assn v The Borough of Tenafly, where a posting ordinance was found to be unconstitutionally enforced when applied to an eruv as it was “selectively enforced”. Jean helpfully suggests other items that could be taken down to ensure uniformity, such as “basketball nets (sic)”.
The hunt begins!
Following this advice, the Jackson Code Enforcement department was issued very clear guidelines that the line to repeat was that ”anything” in the public “right-of-way” was to be removed (underlined in the email for emphasis). The township nickednamed the new plan ”PROJECT ROW” and the hunt was on for the elusive “right-of-way” violations!
However, despite all the supposed “right-of-way” complaints, the town did not seem to know where to start. In an email, Code Enforcement Head Ken Pieslak asks his officers to “take a little time” and come up with some ideas for “anything other than a street sign or mailbox placed in the ROW”. Code Enforcement Officer Connie Sidor helpfully suggests some objects they can target including “Real Estate signs, Bulky Trash, Flower boxes”. Notably absent from her survey are the actual items for which violations were ultimately issued: basketball hoops and eruv poles.
But why not just look at the “multitude” of complains that were received? Is it possible that they couldn’t because such complaints were only about one specific type of object ostensibly in the public “right-of-way”, one which they couldn’t be perceived to be targeting? The emails, after all, show almost no complaints for anything else.
At least they were consistent about enforcement, right? Anything found in the public “right-of-way” should be removed, and no exception can be made. Well, maybe not everything:
In this case, the Code Enforcement Officer is told explicitly to leave something be, in direct violation of the advice of Jackson’s attorney. Could it be they are discriminating in enforcement of the ordinance, picking and choosing when to issue violations? Piesklak says they will look at things “on a case for (sic) case basis”, but didn’t the attorney say “all obstructions”?
A bigger boat
What is clear is that the uptick in enforcement is about one thing: banning of eruvin. For the past 50 years, the “right-of-way” ordinance was “seldom enforced”, only being invoked when a citizen complained about something blocking a street or sidewalk. So, when looking for a pretext to take down eruvin, the town was forced to claim that people had suddenly and inexplicably started complaining about everything in the “right-of-way”. This left Code Enforcement scrambling to figure out exactly what their goal was here, how it could be accomplished uniformly, and maybe, in the words of one officer, “in need of a bigger boat”.
Click here to see all code enforcement emails.
Click here for a searchable list of all notices of violation issued in 2017.