The developer seeking to build multifamily housing on a 2.6 acre parcel of land off Dromore Road in Edgemont brought a  $26 million federal housing discrimination lawsuit Friday against the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, the cloistered group of six nuns who are seeking in separate pending state court proceedings to enforce a 100-year old restrictive covenant on the property that bars construction of apartment houses.

The lawsuit alleges that the nuns are enforcing their rights under the covenant not for privacy and prayer, as they alleged in defending the developer’s lawsuit against them in state court, but rather as part of a conspiracy with government and school officials to prevent the construction of housing in Edgemont for African Americans and persons of Hispanic descent.

There was no evidence cited in the complaint to substantiate the allegations that the nuns were motivated by racial bias.  In fact, one of the Edgemont nuns who was sued is herself African American.   Recent school enrollment figures report that Edgemont’s school age population is 2.2% African American and 7% Hispanic or Latino. The largest minority group in Edgemont is Asian with 30%.

The lawsuit nowhere mentions that Edgemont’s 900 apartments along Central Avenue constitute a third of its entire housing stock and that there are more apartments in Edgemont than in any other village in Greenburgh.

Also sued in federal court Friday were the Edgemont School District and its board of education for having filed legal papers in state court in support of the nuns’ legal arguments.   The developer had previously sued the school district in state court because it owned property in the same subdivision as the nuns and the Dromore developer and was subject to the same restrictive covenant.

In addition, the lawsuit names the Town of Greenburgh and its planning and zoning boards, as well as Town Supervisor Paul Feiner and Town Councilman Francis Sheehan for having allegedly conspired since 2007 to block the developer from getting its project approved.

The lawsuit seeks to enjoin the Town and its officials from certifying any petition that might be presented to incorporate Edgemont as a village on the ground that such incorporation would allow Edgemont to change the zoning to prevent multifamily housing from being built in Edgemont.

The federal Fair Housing Law makes it unlawful to discriminate against any person in the “terms, conditions, privileges of sale or rental of a dwelling, or in the provision of services or facilities in connection therewith, because of race, color, religion, sex,  handicap, familial status, or national origin.”

The plaintiff in the lawsuit is S&R Development Estates, which is a partnership based in Harrison consisting of two brothers, Steven and Richard Troy, both of whom are lawyers.  Neither are African American or of Hispanic descent. However, they claim discrimination under the fair housing law because they say they intend to build affordable housing on the site.  They contend such housing will attract African Americans and Hispanic residents that they claim Edgemont residents do not want living in Edgemont.   They further claim Edgemont residents have allegedly pressured town officials since 2007 to erect roadblocks to prevent such construction.

S&R had successfully argued in state court that town officials succumbed to pressure from Edgemont residents seeking to prevent racial minorities from moving to Edgemont when town officials discovered an error on the Town’s zoning map that allowed multifamily housing on the Dromore site – it had legally been zoned only for single family homes — and unilaterally corrected the error without giving the developer notice and an opportunity to be heard.

Mr. Feiner sided with the developer and the Town never presented a defense in court to respond to S&R’s allegations of racial prejudice by Edgemont residents. Thus, no Edgemont civic leaders or residents were ever asked to testify or otherwise refute the allegations.  The ECC did not learn that the Town had failed to present a defense to these allegations until after it was too late to intervene.

As a result of the Town’s failure to present a defense, the court found the Town corrected the zoning map in bad faith and ordered that the developer have the property deemed zoned for multifamily housing.  The legal ruling otherwise allowed the Town’s correction of the map to stand, however, giving rise to some uncertainty as to whether the court-ordered zoning change would still apply should S&R sell the property to a company that, unlike S&R, is actually in the business of building affordable housing.

Town officials learned of the lawsuit over the weekend – apparently before the Town was even served with the papers.  Town Attorney Timothy Lewis sent copies of the lawsuit to town officials Sunday morning, and Mr. Feiner apparently began distributing copies of the lawsuit that morning to residents of Edgemont who had expressed opposition to Edgemont’s incorporation.

The Edgemont Community Council, which was not named in the lawsuit, has been providing legal assistance to the nuns.

The state court has not yet ruled on the nuns’ motion seeking to enforce the restrictive covenant on the property.   The judge that had been assigned to the case recently recused himself – apparently because of a conflict of interest that arose in connection with S&R’s law firm.  S&R never raised any claims of racial bias in the state court proceeding seeking to prevent the nuns from enforcing the covenant.

The law firm representing S&R, Bleakley Platt, brought a similar federal lawsuit in 2008 on S&R’s behalf against the Town, but that lawsuit was dismissed on multiple grounds.

Bleakley Platt is the same law firm representing Formation Shelbourne, which is seeking to build an assisted living facility at the corner of Underhill and Sprain Roads, and which sued the ECC, the Council of Greenburgh Civic Associations, and 17 area residents for having successfully argued to the Zoning Board that the Shelbourne project required variances under the Zoning Code. That suit was dismissed after ECC president Bob Bernstein said the ECC was considering bringing an anti-SLAPP lawsuit against Shelbourne for using litigation to punish civic groups and residents for having exercised their constitutional rights of free speech.  SLAPP stands for strategic litigation against public participation.

Shelbourne is now suing the Town claiming that a recent town board decision to rescind a negative declaration in support of the Shelbourne application was a violation of its rights.  The Town has moved to dismiss that lawsuit on the ground that because the zoning board might still grant Shelbourne’s application for variances, the dispute is not yet ripe.

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