Catholic Diocese’s RLUIPA and First Amendment Claims Over Proposed Cemetery Allowed to Proceed: Part 2, Permitting, SEQRA, and the POW Law

This is the second post in our series looking at the long-running dispute between the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rockville Center and the Village of Old Westbury over the Diocese’s proposed cemetery. Today’s post focuses on the permitting and SEQRA applications following the state court ruling finding the proposed cemetery was a religious use.

The Diocese’s subdivision application and SEQRA, Part I EAF was submitted on July 2, 2004, with the Board serving as lead agency. In July 2005, the Board filed a positive declaration, indicating the proposed action “may have a significant adverse impact on the environment and that an environmental impact statement will be required.” The Diocese submitted a Draft Scope in February 2006. Village consultants LBG challenged the Diocese’s claim that its other cemetery operations showed the fertilizer used would have only a minimal impact and no impact on the groundwater. They later found that “existing cemetery operations were contributing to nitrate levels” and required base-line groundwater sampling at existing cemeteries. The revised DEIS was submitted in May 2008. FPC’s comments were returned in August, but the Diocese was not provided copies, and thus filed its FEIS in July 2009. When the Board then granted time extensions to the consultants, counsel for the Diocese informed the Board the extensions were an unnecessary and illegal delay in acting on the Diocese's application and deemed the application denied. The Diocese would subsequently bring suit against the Village and other defendants in federal court.

Meanwhile in 2001, while the state lawsuit was pending, the Village Board had enacted a series of comprehensive zoning amendments. Citing the growing number of special permit applications for places of worship and private schools, the Village had issued a moratorium on applications for special permits in 1999. The two year review that followed led to a variety of zoning changes, including the Places of Worship (“POW”) law which imposed new requirements regarding building area, building height, setbacks from property lines, screening, etc. on places of worship.

The next post in this series will look at the commencement of the federal litigation and initial motions.

The case is The Roman Catholic Diocese of Rockville Centre, New York, v. The Incorporated Village Of Old Westbury, 2015 WL 5178126 (E.D.N.Y.)

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