Hasidic enclave has growing pains in suburbia

Associated Press/September 11, 2004
By Michael Hill

Kiryas Joel, NY -- Surrounded by box stores and subdivisions, Hasidic Jews from New York City built a tradition-bound island here in the Hudson Valley.

Bearded men wear black coats on sweltering summer days. Women in head scarves push baby carriages past signs written in Hebrew. Living modestly in multifamily units, they have thrived and multiplied in the middle of suburbia.

That's causing a lot of fuss lately.

Kiryas Joel wants permission to build a water pipeline to serve its growing population. At the same time, two petitions to annex land into Kiryas Joel are pending. Neighbors worry about the village busting its seams and condominiums encroaching into their neighborhoods of big lawns and trees.

"They want to develop as an urban community in a rural area," said Patrick Dwyer, a nearby resident. " ... We have already lost equity in our homes. People in panic are underselling homes."

The village of Kiryas Joel sits on a 1.1 square mile plot of land about 50 miles northwest of New York City. It was incorporated in 1977 by city-weary members of the Satmar sect from Brooklyn, some who survived the Holocaust.

Decades later, Kiryas Joel remains strikingly different from neighboring bedroom communities. Eight children in a family is not unusual. While people leave Kiryas Joel to work and shop, they still refer to other places as "the outside world."

Kiryas Joel is among the fastest growing places in the state, with about 16,400 people, according to census estimates. The hammer taps of new construction are a common sound here.

There are growing pains though. More residents are drawing on local wells, a problem that village administrator Gedalye Szegedin likens to too many straws in a drink.

The village's proposed solution is to tap into an underground aqueduct 13 miles away that carries drinking water to New York City from its upstate watershed. About 75 watershed communities already take advantage of a state law allowing them to siphon from the city's supply.

But this proposed pipeline has taken on symbolic weight.

More water for Kiryas Joel means more people _ at least that's the view of pipeline opponents. Petitions filed by Hasidic residents living next to Kiryas Joel to annex 184 acres of land into the village have fanned fears of rapid growth.

"I didn't buy here because I wanted to live in an urban development. I came from Queens," said Joseph Ferguson, a resident of neighboring Woodbury.

Szegedin said opponents incorrectly link a pipeline to a population boom. Kiryas Joel's population, he said, is tied to birth rates: Girls of Kiryas Joel who follow tradition will marry at 18, settle here and have babies.

"People in the outside world _ outside Kiryas Joel _ believe that if we have water, we're going to grow. `If we stop them from having water they're not going to grow."' Szegedin said. "What they don't realize is growth in Kiryas Joel is births of new babies."

Szegedin said there's enough undeveloped land in Kiryas Joel to last about 10 years. As for the annexation petitions, he said the village board would consider the applications after environmental reviews.

Ferguson and other residents worried about growth formed a grass-roots opposition group called the Southern Orange County Alliance. Opponents scored a symbolic victory this summer when the county legislature approved a resolution 20-1 opposing the pipeline (the legislator who represents Kiryas Joel voted in favor of the pipeline). Still, the measure has no legal bearing.

Some opponents complain Kiryas Joel is employing high-pressure tactics. Dwyer says residents from the Hasidic village have asked people who do not have for sale signs on their lawn whether their houses were on the market.

Meanwhile, some Kiryas Joel residents see signs of prejudice. Opponents deny anti-Semitism, though Szegedin cited a letter from a local town supervisor that called Kiryas Joel a "parasite community." One Kiryas Joel resident, who didn't want his name used, said people from neighboring towns now treat him coldly.

It might seem an unfair fight _ a little village against an array of foes in surrounding towns. But the villagers of Kiryas Joel are viewed as a potent voting bloc by many politicians and the village has been successful getting help from the government.

The most famous case involves the village's long fight to create a special public school district for handicapped students at Kiryas Joel. Lawmakers in Albany worked for a decade to craft a law to accommodate the village, weathering multiple rejections from the U.S. Supreme Court.

New York City officials say they are legally required to grant applications to tap into their water supply, as long as the design meets specifications. Szegedin said the pipeline plans are being designed.

The village is now trying to win over hearts and minds, running full-page ads in the local newspaper that lay out the argument for the pipeline.

County legislators are considering a lawsuit over the pipeline.

As tensions increase, both sides say they want to settle the matter civilly.

"They're not going away. We're not going away," Ferguson said. "There has to be some give and take."