Photo Credit: Google Maps
Map of area of interest (circled) relative to Westchester and Rockland counties in New York, and Bergen county in New Jersey.

Home-rule messages are usually uncontroversial pieces of legislation that get passed by both houses of the legislature and signed into law by the governor as a matter of pro forma policy. These particular pieces of legislation originate from a town or county legislature and sponsored by the area senator or assemblyman in the state legislature. Home rule involves the authority of a local government to prevent state government intervention with its operations. In other words, if a local government needs the state to sign off on a local matter, a home-rule message is the means to make that happen.

However, one such piece of legislation hit a snag on the final day of the state legislative session last month. The matter involves a proposed housing development in the rural town of Chester, Orange County. Chester is adjacent to the towns of Monroe and Blooming Grove, both heavily-populated by the Satmar Jewish community. The town of Monroe includes the Monroe and Kiryas Joel. In 2019, the town of Palm Tree became a coterminous municipality with the village of Kiryas Joel, one of the poorest communities in the nation. More than 60 percent of the local families live below poverty level and rely heavily on public assistance, including 64 percent of those under the age of 18 and 51 percent of those 65 years old or over, according to federal statistics.

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The particular circumstance at hand involves a housing development that sits on a 117-acre property, called the Greens at Chester, being built to include 431 large attached and stand-alone houses. Developers estimate the homes will sell for approximately $500,000 each.

The homes in nearby Kiryas Joel are contemporary townhouse-style condominiums with new construction ongoing throughout the community.

The town of Chester has a population of approximately 12,000 residents. The school district has approximately 1,000 students. School costs are one major concern for town residents. While chasidic 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 projected the development could raise school taxes in the town by approximately $300 per household. It is estimated that as many as 2,500 students would live in the development.

“Large-scale growth like that in a small town makes a huge impact,” said Chester Town Supervisor Robert Valentine, a businessman, homebuilder, developer and excavating contractor.

A lawsuit settled in February of this year allowed for a compromise of 35 percent of a given piece of property to be constructed. The rest of the property would have to remain green space. The compromise was between the developers seeking 80 percent and the town zoning code permitting 25 percent of the land to be built on.

“There were concessions given to the zoning so they could build larger houses,” the Conservative- and Republican-affiliated Valentine told The Jewish Press. “The Chasidic community needs larger houses. To me it doesn’t matter who is building the houses.”

Valentine said, “Forty building permits have already been approved and the community center has mikvahs in it.”

Another part of the settlement supported by the developers and the town was the creation of a Community Preservation Fund (CPF) for the purchase of development rights (PDR). That would institute a .75 percent (three-quarters of one percent) tax on new construction.

Agudath Israel of America opposed the measure, releasing a statement saying, “While this proposal may have appeared innocuous, it was in fact designed to fund purchases of local land in order to keep development rights away from private parties, in particular Orthodox Jews.”

 

Legislative Intrigue

Valentine said he was disheartened that the Chester measure was pulled from the Assembly floor at the last moment.

“Lo and behold some powers that be pulled some strings in Albany and the bill was quashed,” Valentine said.

The PDR is designed to protect the rural character of a community and protect open spaces including farmland, water resources and natural resources to name a few examples. The municipality can then put aside these funds to be able to repurchase and make sure that certain parts of the municipality are maintained and open for public use. When developmental rights are purchased for certain pieces of land, the PDR fund specifically is there to take a portion of the money from that land purchase to be able to repurchase other pieces of land for open use.

Supporters of the measure maintain that the tax doesn’t stop developments but is designed to keep the rural character of the landscape and it is not telling people that they cannot build.

The mystery surrounding why the bill was pulled from the Assembly floor after two other Orange County towns had their PDRs approved, is causing speculation that the long arms of the attorney general and two assemblymen, one from Brooklyn and one from Queens, who are Orthodox Jews, called for the measure to be quashed.

“The Attorney General requested that your bill not be passed in light of some litigation in which her office is involved,” Assembly Republican Leader Will Barclay (R – Pulaski, Oswego County) wrote to the bill’s sponsor, Assemblyman Colin Schmitt (R-New Windsor, Orange County) on the last day of session. “Accordingly, the Assembly majority has decided to prevent this legislation coming to the floor for a vote at this time.”

Valentine, who said he personally negotiated the settlement, took exception with the outcome based on pending litigation.

“I’m sure certain developers have a direct line to the attorney general’s office,” Valentine said. “Supposedly the bill was pulled due to pending litigation with the AG. We have no litigation. Our litigation was settled (in February) with the attorney general as well. After the lawsuit was settled she held a news conference saying ‘discrimination won’t be tolerated.’ She said the town of Chester would have to do all these things to prove they’re not discriminating but we do those things anyway. Those are all the things we’ve always done. Political games happened. It had nothing to do with discrimination.”

Schmitt had two other identical bills pass the Assembly for the towns of Blooming Grove and Warwick. He released a statement condemning the attorney general’s action.

“The attorney general’s unprecedented interference into the legislative process against a bipartisan piece of local legislation is uncalled for, offensive and wrong,” Schmitt wrote. “It is undeniably a violation of the separation and independence of our branches of government. The Chester Community Preservation legislation that I introduced passed the Local Governments committee unanimously, and passed in the Codes, Ways and Means, and Rules committees with strong bipartisan support. There is no justification for the killing of this bipartisan bill that is meant to allow Chester to work to preserve its rural character and protect open space, farmland, water sources, natural resources and so much more for future generations of residents to enjoy and appreciate. I stand with local leaders and residents in Chester in demanding accountability for this action.”

 

Political Intrigue Ensues

Supporters of the measure have another theory as to why the bill was pulled. The theory supports Valentine’s assertion about political games being played. This time the games involved Assemblyman Simcha Eichenstein (D-Boro Park/Midwood, Brooklyn), a former lobbyist for the City of New York under Mayor Bill de Blasio and a former senior adviser to Comptroller Tom DiNapoli.

The other alleged perpetrator in quashing this measure, according to sources, is Assemblyman Dan Rosenthal (D-Kew Gardens Hills, Queens), at age 30 the youngest member of the state legislature.

Sources told The Jewish Press, Eichenstein and Rosenthal took the hit for quashing the bill asserting “it was a racist piece of legislation. If it is racist they should talk to Senator James Skoufis (D-Cornwall, Orange County) who passed it in the Senate.” The source also contends Rosenthal and Eichenstein were called upon “to take the heat off the attorney general for crossing over from a separate branch of government.”

The source was also rankled by the fact that the attorney general “decided to make an unprecedented move crossing over from the judicial branch to the legislative branch of government. That sounds good for someone who is going to try to run for governor.”

Another part of the political intrigue is that Schmitt, a conservative Republican, is running for a congressional seat in the Hudson Valley next year challenging an incumbent liberal Democrat. Assembly democrats may not have wanted to have him be too successful with sponsoring these home rule pieces of legislation. Schmitt also serves as a sergeant in the U.S. Army National Guard. He is currently on his annual two-week deployment.

Eichenstein, Rosenthal, Skoufis and Orange County Executive Steven Neuhaus refused to comment for this story to clarify the assertions made by the sources in this report.

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Marc Gronich is news director of Statewide News Service. He also operates the website JBizTechValley.com. He has been covering government and politics since 1981. His Albany Beat column appears monthly in The Jewish Press.