JACKSON-It now appears that the township council’s recent ordinance change to remove a clause that allowed residents to request to place items in the public right of way was in fact intended to prohibit Orthodox Jewish residents from constructing eruvs according to documents recently released to the public by the township.
Jackson Township officials contend publicly that the ordinance change was a quality of life issue that affected all residents, but as the emails suggest, it was a calculated plan by the township council and administration to target Jewish eruvs.
The ban on eruvs also had collateral damage. In order to block eruvs, the township council also had to take action against hundreds of basketball hoops placed on curbs throughout the township used by children township-wide.
In early April of 2017, Jackson Township officials received emails from three individuals, members of the “Jackson Strong” group who launched a campaign against the township to fight for the removal of eruvs in town.
Those three individuals caused an entire town to erupt into a summer-long battle that pitted many in the community against Orthodox residents and the township against basketball hoops.
Township officials cited many complaints against eruvs, but an OPRA request shows just three individuals had complained in writing.
Jackson resident Chris Kisseberth, wrote a letter to town hall asking for the removal of Jewish eruvs in Brookwood 1.
“I have noticed that there are poles with wires connected on the public property in the Brookwood one development. I find that to be an eyesore. I would not like that in my neighborhood. If I were looking to move into this town and saw a row of this connected poles and wires I would not want to move into that neighborhood,” she wrote. “Are these things allowed? For the most part, this town has nice clean neighborhoods with well-maintained homes. This just changes the character of the neighborhood. Now to the point I would like to make. This kind of thing causes a separation of all the residents in the community. I don’t think it would go over well if a block of homes were roped off with signs that say white section or Christian section. This causes a divide in what is supposed to be a Community…I feel as though this needs to be addressed now before it gets out of control.”
Another member of Jackson Strong lobbied township officials to ban eruvs based on safety concerns, religious separation between church and state, lightning strike risk and even suggested getting the EPA and DEP involved in the fight against eruvs.
“Are you saying the township isn’t concerned with those of us who find these wires discriminatory, obnoxious and segregating are wasting our time,” one wrote the township.
Jackson resident Kelly Kanis sent an email to Jackson Township code enforcement officer Ken Pieslak complaining about eruvs in Brookwood 1. That email was copied to the township council and Mayor Michael Reina.
“Dear Ken, I’m not sure what is going on in BW1, but these poles and wires and extend across property lines and are permanently affixed to the public sidewalk/grassy area. I live in BW3 and was always under the impression that this area was indeed township property even though I had to maintain it. I’ll have to see if they are being constructed in my neighborhood,” Kanis wrote the township. “It seems as if the Hacidic [sp] families are grouping their homes together for some reason bc a non-Hacidic family was asked if they could put poles on their property. Noone should even be allowed to ask that for residents to feel pressured to allow them to do so. If this is a cultural or religious symbol, it creates a VERY divided community with physical boundaries of separation.”
Kanis likened her experience with the newly installed eruvs in Brookwood 1 to the mid-twentieth century Jim Crow laws aimed at segregating races in America.
“Just like the Jim Crow laws labeling ‘white or black fountains’, this is a sign that ‘Hacidics only’ are welcome. In addition, it is NOT separation of church and state with this crossing of property lines and on the public areas of the sidewalk. I didn’t even think realtor ‘for sale’ signs were allowed in this strip,” she wrote town officials. “I always thought a fence, border, lights, or flag poles would look nice there, so I look forward to constructing some soon since it seems to be allowed. Things like this are definitely changing the landscape of Jackson.”
Business Administrator Helene Schlegel said the poles in question were around four adjoining homes and did not interfere with any bicycle traffic, pedestrian walkways and did not appear to pose any safety concerns after discussion with other township officials.
Code Compliance Officer Ken Pieslak replied to Kanis, stating he had received several emails on the subject at the same time, indicating a coordinated effort to remove the eruvs. Pieslak stated that his office looked into the matter and said no township laws prohibit the construction of eruvs on the public right of way.
“We are aware of the group of homes that have installed poles connected by the wire in Brookwood 1 and found there to be no violation of any ordinance/law,” Pieslak responded. Pieslak also informed Kanis that there is a sign ordinance in effect that prohibits signage in the public right of way, but since eruvs are not signs, they are not enforceable under the township ordinances.
Kanis responded to Pieslak stating, “I am not sure where this will end up as far as preventing these divisive boundary lines from being installed. Hopefully, the tall pools won’t end up being a safety hazard and damage cars and property or hurt anyone if they fell during storms, etc,” she wrote. “I just can’t believe these permanent structures do not fall under a category of things already regulated in the ROW [right of way].”
Jackson Strong member Jennifer Cusanelli became the third member of the group to publicly complain about the eruvs.
“There seems to be quite a few eruv poles with wires or ropes being put up on the row in Jackson neighborhoods occupied by Orthodox families,” Cusanelli wrote. “Apparently they are used to allow an extension of the area in which Orthodox families can travel on their days of prayer.”
“As this may be of religious benefit to them it does not but create an eyesore and puts a label on an entire neighborhood,” she added.
Kanis, after receiving no further response or her desired removal of the eruvs, wrote another letter to town hall.
“Hello again! Just wondering if these wires will be enforced, just like other structures on the ROW,” she wrote. “Since the homeowners do not own that land…If not I can see this opening a huge can of worms for other structures to be placed there.”
The next morning Kisseberth followed up on her non-replies from the township also.
Township Business Administrator addressed further concerns by Kanis that the township departments are confused about how to enforce the removal of eruvs, citing unclear code. “This appears to be a complex subject,” Schlegel wrote. “We are requesting that our township attorney provide us with legal decisions regarding these wires that will provide a firm answer we can solidly defend.”
Township zoning officer Jeff Purpuro told the involved parties that his office has no enforcement powers under his jurisdiction to remove the Orthodox residents’ newly installed eruvs.
“Bottom line, from a Planning and Zoning perspective, relative to Chapter 244, as nothing seems to exist on this matter, I have nothing to enforce,” Purpuro wrote.
Councilman Robert Nixon, who led the efforts to draft ordinances in the township to curb the influx of activities perceived to be emanating from the Orthodox Jewish community wrote a letter to Mayor Reina and Helene Schlegel.
“I’m writing with a sense of frustration at the exchanges I have been copied on today between residents, code, zoning and elected officials,” Nixon penned. “The residents are no doubt confused as to what our official position is on the matter.”
Nixon further chastized Mayor Reina for allowing department heads and other township employees to consult with residents without first consulting the mayor’s office and the council. Nixon worried about future legal implications the employee correspondence could have with the township.
“At worse, it shows we aren’t communicating internally about responsibilities for enforcement of our own laws,” Nixon said in an email chastizing the mayor. “Especially when both reference legal review for their decisions.”
Business Administrator Schlegel, representing the mayor agreed with Nixon, but pointed out that the two departments deal with two very different areas of township laws, schooling the state lobbyist on municipal zoning, land use and code enforcement laws.
Councilman Barry Calogero, another vocal opponent of the Orthodox community in town chimed in with his opinion on the matter.
“I respectfully request that we ‘council’ revisit these ordinances and correct the obvious loopholes being exploited,” Councilman Calogero wrote. “CP Bressi [Ken Bressi] would you mind if I sought legal advice on a possible revision to these ordinances?”
Pieslak stated that the township is now in the process of notifying homeowners that the poles must be removed from the right of way.
Upon advisement from township Attorney Jean Cipriani from the firm of Gilmore and Monahan, Pieslak notified Kanis that after, “much research the township attorney has provided us with legal guidance/direction.”
Pieslak cited township ordinance 372-8 which prohibits the construction of any article in the right of way without prior consent from the township committee of Jackson.
“We will begin enforcing this as outlined,” Pieslak wrote.
Through the month-long ordeal, township officials responded to each complain the trio made about eruvs in Jackson, investigating each, each time, finding there was no law to enforce against the residents concerning the eruvs.
“When will this be enforced and when will the poles and wires be taken down?” Kanis asked the township.
Councilman Barry Calogero demands the township immediately begins enforcing the laws and to remove eruvs.
“If there is a violation, I respectfully request emediate [sic] enforcement actions to be taken,” Calogero wrote. “To the fullest extent permitted.”
On Tuesday, September 12th, Jackson Township sealed their end of the deal, changing the township ordinance to prohibit eruvs in the public right of way and initiating an immediate township-wide crackdown on all right of way violations.