On March 29, 2019, the Appellate Division, Third Department ruled that the school rooms and dormitories to be used by students and rabbis at a yeshiva are required to be considered a “place of worship” as defined in the Zoning Law of the Town of Wawarsing. The litigation was commenced by Yeshiva Talmud Torah Ohr Moshe (Talmud Torah), a Brooklyn-based Orthodox Jewish yeshiva hoping to open a secondary location in the Town of Wawarsing. Talmud Torah’s proposed yeshiva, which would be used for education during the summer and religious retreats at other times, encompasses two synagogues as well as supporting facilities for teaching, dining, fellowship, and residence.
The Town Planning Board paused its review of Talmud Torah’s site plan application to seek an official opinion as to whether Talmud Torah’s proposed yeshiva fit within the definition of an allowed “place of worship” use under the zoning law. The zoning law’s definition of “place of worship” includes primary houses of worship (such as churches and synagogues), as well as “related on-site uses” (such as convents, monasteries, school halls and retreat houses). A Municipal Code Officer, characterizing the supporting facilities of the yeshiva as representing a “school” or “camp” use, found that the proposed uses did not fit within the “place of worship” definition. The Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) affirmed this decision, prompting Talmud Torah to challenge that determination in court.
Talmud Torah presented a three-pronged argument as to why the proposed yeshiva-related uses are indeed a “place of worship” under the zoning law:
- New York courts’ expansive definition of terms like “church” and “synagogue” has been held to include various associated uses, such as the teaching, dining, and residence facilities proposed by Talmud Torah;
- Principles of statutory interpretation mandate consideration of these aspects of the yeshiva as “related on-site uses,” since they share characteristics with the examples of related on-site uses presented in the zoning law’s definition of “place of worship”; and
- In the context of land use decisions, a proposed religious land use must be accorded special consideration and flexibility under New York law.
Talmud Torah also pointed out that the challenged decision, being purely legal interpretation, was outside the ZBA’s area of agency expertise and therefore should be subject to the stricter standard of de novo review by the court rather than the more lenient deferential review typically applied to agency decisions.
In response, the ZBA argued that its decision deserved deference from the court and that the determination was rational and should be upheld under this standard. The Supreme Court, Ulster County, utilized a deferential standard and upheld the ZBA’s interpretation.
On appeal, the Third Department held that deference was not appropriate for a determination purely involving legal interpretation and therefore applied the stricter de novo standard of review. The Court found that the “place of worship” definition explicitly allows for school halls and “unambiguously includes the living facilities proposed” for the yeshiva. The Third Department further stated that, even if it had found the definition of “place of worship” to be ambiguous, it “would have been required to resolve any ambiguity against [the ZBA], especially in light of the flexibility required to be given to definitions of religious land uses.” The Third Department annulled the ZBA’s determination and remitted the matter back to the Planning Board for continued review of the site plan application.