The residents of the small town of Blooming Grove in Orange County, New York, population 18,800, are seeking to protect their farmland, open space, natural resources and landmarks. The town’s elected officials want to impose a 0.75 percent tax on property sales to build up the community preservation funds in an effort to maintain the town’s rural character. The Blooming Grove effort is modeled after a two-decade-old fund in the nearby town of Warwick, adjacent to the town of Monroe, which includes an Orthodox Jewish enclave of Satmar chasidim in the villages of Kiryas Joel and Pine Tree.
For this tax hike to become a reality it had to be approved by the town board, the state legislature, the county legislature and then a public referendum where the people decide.
The measure passed the town board with bipartisan support. With minor objections from state lawmakers, the bill, sponsored in the lower house by Assemblyman Colin Schmitt (R-New Windsor) and in the upper house by Senator James Skoufis (D-Cornwall), was passed in June by both houses with bipartisan support. The next step was a signature by Governor Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, for the process to continue to the next level – the county legislature and the public referendum.
On December 13, two chasidic leaders from the United Jewish Communities of Blooming Grove, chairman Isaac Eckstein and board member Joel Stern, were part of a delegation of Jewish leaders who met privately in Manhattan with Lt. Governor Brian Benjamin (D-Harlem) pleading with him to urge the governor to veto the bill.
“We spoke about some of the antisemitism that creeps into the broader society and specifically we spoke to him [Benjamin] about the bill passed by the state legislature regarding the town of Blooming Grove, which is right near Kiryas Joel. Legislation has been passed making it more difficult for Jews to move into the neighborhood and that’s on Governor Hochul’s desk right now,” Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel told The Jewish Press shortly after the Manhattan meeting with Benjamin. “We told him how important it is to our community that she veto that bill.
“It would make it difficult for Orthodox Jews in particular. It’s targeting Orthodox Jews. In broad outline, whenever there would be a sale of a property then a certain amount of it would be put into a special tax fund to preserve the character of the community. The real purpose of this bill was to prevent the growth of the Chasidic community around Kiryas Joel; then that’s something that should be seen for what it really is. It was motivated by antisemitism or anti-Chasidism and should be vetoed by the governor,” Zwiebel added.”
Nine days later, on December 22, the governor vetoed the measure citing, in part, “The fund created by this bill is also permitted to accept gifts in excess of whatever tax revenue is generated by the transfer tax. There have been well-documented tensions in Orange County between local elected officials and members of the Hasidic community … It would be inappropriate to sign this legislation at this juncture, while facts are still being gathered about the situation,” Hochul wrote.
The veto upset the sponsors, Skoufis and Schmitt, because Hochul pledged in August that she would work with the legislature before vetoing their bills.
“She was given a trove of facts of why this was needed and would have had a positive impact but chose to ignore them,” Schmitt fumed when contacted by The Jewish Press. “If there were concerns, no one from the administration made any connection to me or to the local government or to the local leaders at the town level to work through other questions that have popped up. My office is always available for that and the town government, which this is a major issue for them, would have been available 24/7 to answer any questions but they just never reached out.
“At the end of the day, the veto denied every voter in the town the right to vote for or against what they want. You’re denying the people the right to say no, we don’t want it, or we do want it. This shouldn’t be controversial at all because it’s just giving people a choice. This veto shows a blatant disregard for our state’s constitutional principle of home rule. It completely ignores legislators of both parties in both houses. It ignores a local government request after several years of local government action on this. It had the support of local, regional and statewide conservation, farm and community groups. To veto it is just … there’s no excuse for it,” Schmitt added.
Skoufis preferred not to comment on the veto.
The veto drew praise for the governor and indignation towards town and county leaders from Eckstein, Stern and Agudath Israel of America.
“Everyone in today’s day and age in this geographical area knows that the term “Preservation” and “Comprehensive Moratoriums” is the 21st century code word and dog whistle to keep Chasidic Jews out from an area,” Eckstein and Stern wrote to The Jewish Press in a prepared statement. “We are inspired and impressed by their [the Hochul administration’s] ability and vision to be able to see through this bill for what it really was and to act on it swiftly and with decisiveness.”
Without detailing how they make the connection between “preservation of farmland” and “preservation of community character” leads to antisemitism, Agudah Israel flexed their political muscle by getting this bill vetoed.
“It is the contention of the local Jewish community, as well as Agudath Israel, that the real purpose of the bill is to buy up open land in order to keep Chasidic Jews from purchasing this land and building homes in Blooming Grove, which is on the outskirts of the village of Kiryas Joel. It was a high-priority item on the agenda of a meeting held with Governor Hochul at the home of Agudah Board of Trustees’ chairman Shlomo Werdiger in Flatbush, Brooklyn, decrying the antisemitism and discrimination implicit in the bill,” Agudah wrote in a statement.
The private meeting at Werdiger’s home was never enumerated on Hochul’s list of meetings with lobbyists or interest groups having business before the state. In an effort to show transparency in her administration, Hochul said she would disclose such meetings, as was the case with her predecessor, Governor Andrew Cuomo. Hochul never saw that pledge through to fruition.
The measure passed the Assembly on June 10 by a vote of 131 to 17. Of the 21 Jewish members of the assembly, Simcha Eichenstein (D-Boro Park, Brooklyn) and three other assemblymen were among the 17 members who voted against the measure.
“I thank Governor Hochul for seeing through this issue and vetoing a bill that would prevent Chasidic families from moving in to Blooming Grove. Taxing all new homes with a land preservation fund is clearly a smokescreen for the real agenda,” Eichenstein told The Jewish Press. “This was literally designed to keep Orthodox Jews out from the town. We should never bring any legislation to the floor that discriminates against any group of people.”
In a prepared statement to The Jewish Press, Town Supervisor Rob Jeroloman wrote in essence that he doesn’t see this as having antisemitic undertones. He refused further comment and refused repeated attempts to answer phone, text and email messages.
“The Town of Blooming Grove is greatly disappointed that the governor has vetoed the town’s Community Preservation Transfer Tax Home Rule request,” wrote Jeroloman. “The Blooming Grove Community Preservation bill had written support for our local preservation agencies including Scenic Hudson, the Orange County Land Trust, national conservation groups and the Orange County Commissioner of Planning. It is unfortunate that the governor has chosen not to support protecting our environment, farmland, and some open spaces. All our town was asking for is moral accounting and a proper balance in regards to our own environment and farmland. At least we now know where our new governor stands in regards to this issue.”
County Legislator Katie Bonelli (R-Blooming Grove) represents the towns of Blooming Grove, Woodbury, Palm Tree and Monroe and the Villages of South Blooming Grove, Kiryas Joel and Woodbury. She also serves as the chairman of the county legislature. Bonelli refused repeated request for comment.
The connection between open spaces and the claim of antisemitism by the Jewish community remains unclear. Of the people contacted for this report no one could address this head on. It is possible that if Jews purchase property in Blooming Grove amid open spaces, they can live there and there is no antisemitism. Until the connection is clearly made, it seems to be a straw man argument.
The measure is likely to reappear as part of next year’s legislative session.