Greenburgh lawmakers on Monday night approved spending $6.5 million to settle a decade-long legal saga in which the town was found liable of violating the constitutional rights of a Mount Vernon congregation.
The Town Board voted 3-1 in favor of the agreement with Fortress Bible Church, three years after a federal judge determined Greenburgh interfered with the congregation’s ability to practice its religion.
“The settlement will allow the church to leave the courtroom behind and focus its attention on its religious endeavors and charitable works,” said Nick Ward-Willis, an attorney representing Fortress Bible.
The agreement will compensate the church for the town’s insistence during the approval process that Fortress Bible could not properly mitigate traffic and safety concerns as it sought to build a sanctuary and school near the Sprain Brook Parkway.
The federal courts also found Greenburgh acted in bad faith and illegitimately used the environmental review process as a way to block the church’s proposal, among other transgressions.
Now town taxpayers are left to foot the bill.
Town Comptroller Bart Talamini said the first $1 million will be provided by one of the town’s insurance companies. He told Greenburgh Update, a blog covering the town’s government, that the remaining balance will be paid for by unincorporated area taxpayers over a five-year period commencing in 2015. Greenburgh will borrow the money and taxpayers will repay $1.1 million in principal plus interest per year over the five-year time frame, he said.
“The reason I voted no was because I believed the settlement amount was too high,” Councilwoman Diana Juettner said during the meeting.
The $6.5 settlement appears to be the largest award of damages a municipality has ever had to pay for religious discrimination stemming from violations of both the United States Constitution and a federal law known as the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.
In 2008, two federal courts found that the village of Mamaroneck had violated RLUIPA by blocking expansion plans by Westchester Day School. The village and yeshiva settled in 2008, with Mamaroneck allowing the expansion and paying the school $4.75 million; the school graciously declined to go after the village for millions in legal fees.
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Photo: The exterior of the Fortress Bible Church on North 10th Avenue in Mount Vernon on April 18.