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Jackson dormitory ban draws lawsuit from advocacy group

By Mark Rosman
Managing Editor

JACKSON – Agudath Israel of America, which advocates for the interests of Orthodox Jewry, is asking a federal court to rule that ordinances enacted by the Jackson Township Council which ban the construction of dormitories in the municipality is unconstitutional and illegal under the U.S. Constitution.

A lawsuit filed by attorney Sieglinde Rath, of the firm Storzer and Associates, Washington, D.C., in U.S. District Court, seeks to have the ordinances annulled and to have Jackson officials permanently enjoined from applying them.

Township Attorney Jean Cipriani, of the firm Gilmore and Monahan, Toms River, did not return a message seeking a comment on behalf of the municipality.

The plaintiffs are Agudath Israel of America, a 95-year-old nonprofit organization, and WR Property LLC, which acquired 4.9 acres on White Road in Jackson for the purpose of developing the property or marketing it for development of an Orthodox Jewish religious school, according to the lawsuit. The company cannot now develop its property as a religious school, the legal action claims.

In March, the council adopted an ordinance which prohibits the construction of dormitories in all zoning districts in Jackson. Although no dormitories had been proposed, officials said they were taking the action because dormitories were not previously addressed in the municipal code.

A second ordinance that was adopted at the same time defines a dormitory as “any building, or portion thereof, designed or converted to contain living quarters which are provided as residences or for overnight sleeping for individuals or groups operated as an accessory use to a school, college, university, boarding school, convent, monastery, nonprofit educational institution, religious order or other.”

As the dormitory ordinance was being discussed by municipal officials, some members of the public noted a recent increase in Jackson’s Orthodox Jewish population and said they believed the legislation targeted a specific group whose representatives may one day have wanted to seek approval to construct schools and dormitory facilities in the municipality.

The lawsuit asserts that “the purpose of the ordinance was to target the Orthodox Jewish community, to prevent that community from being able to have the necessary educational institutions to teach their youth and to discourage that community from residing in Jackson.”

The document asserts that “the ordinances are the latest action taken by the township in a long campaign to erect a wall on its border with Lakewood, where many Orthodox Jews live, in order to discourage them from moving into Jackson.”

The lawsuit states that Jackson “was aware of the Orthodox Jewish community’s need for religious schools with dormitories, including knowledge of recent actions against Ocean Township (Monmouth County) where this court held that preventing a religious school with dormitories from locating in the township violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 and ordered the township to permit the operation of such school, and against Howell (Monmouth County), where this court held that the plaintiffs’ claims could proceed where they ‘allege that defendants harbor hostility toward the ultra-Orthodox Jewish faith.’ ”

In the lawsuit, Rath notes that “While Jackson’s code bans dormitories from operating anywhere within its jurisdiction, the township code permits other land uses that entail group residential components.

“For example, the code permits the construction and operation of ‘community residences for the developmentally disabled,’ ‘community shelters for victims of domestic violence’ and ‘life care facility or development’ in various of its residential zoning districts.”

In addition to asking the court to annul the ordinances, the plaintiffs are asking the court to declare that a religious school with dormitories is a permitted use on WR Property LLC’s property; to award the plaintiffs attorney costs; and to award the plaintiffs “nominal damages.”

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