Monday marks our next payment in the Fortress Bible debacle
Nearly nine years ago, the Town of Greenburgh illegally prevented Fortress Bible—a Mount Vernon-based Pentecostal congregation—from building a church in the Town’s unincorporated area. A federal court found that Supervisor Paul Feiner and the Town had manipulated the environmental review process to kill the project and “substantially burdened the [church’s] religious exercise,” a violation of its constitutional rights.
The court also noted:
-“The record [was] replete with evidence regarding [Feiner and the Town’s] intentional destruction of evidence”;
-“Similarly situated institutions were treated differently than [the church], without any rational basis”; and
-The Town “fabricated” safety issues as pretext for improperly complicating the process and “intentionally manipulated data” to support a negative finding.
Mr. Feiner even attempted to coerce the church into donating a fire truck to support its application.
The court’s findings compelled the Town to settle with the church for $6.5 million, the largest known settlement for religious discrimination by a municipality in U.S. history. Only residents of the unincorporated area, and not those residing in Greenburgh’s incorporated villages, are liable for the bond that funded this historic and shameful settlement.
The Fortress Bible fiasco was perpetrated right here in unincorporated Greenburgh by our very own local government. The same Town Supervisor who offers a daily stream of feel-good press releases (fixed potholes, Greenburgh history, restaurant openings) destroyed evidence and evaded questions in federal court, prompting the judge to describe his testimony as "not credible." And this case isn't ancient history, either.
On Monday, the Town will make its next Fortress Bible bond payment ($600,000). And we have another $3 million to go until the bond is mercifully retired in 2024. Unlike most municipal bonds, this one did not fund road improvements, pool upgrades, or any aspect of our infrastructure: it funded a debt deriving exclusively from our Town’s discriminatory and illegal behavior.
We may never know why the Town singled out Fortress Bible for disparate treatment while expediting other projects such as the expansion of the Hackley School. Nonetheless, unbelievably, this debacle really happened. But what's even more remarkable, is that after the historic settlement was entered, Mr. Feiner (the politician most responsible for it) was voted back into office in a contested primary election! That could only happen in Greenburgh, where over half the Town's voters reside in incorporated villages and share equal electoral power with unincorporated voters. But because villages have jurisdiction over their own land use decisions, they bear no liability for the Town’s egregious and expensive land use mishaps.
The ongoing Fortress Bible bond payments are a reminder of Greenburgh’s calculated, discriminatory misconduct. The liability also underscores that unincorporated residents bear disproportionate liability for Town misdeeds and are burdened with a structural disadvantage in elections.
The Fortress Bible liability is irreversible, and the loss of the SALT deduction makes it even more painful today. Fortunately, another path exists for unincorporated hamlets seeking greater accountability, careful land use planning, professional management, and a change in leadership. New York law provides a process for a hamlet to become an incorporated village within a town.
To that end, the EIC will soon file a second incorporation petition seeking a referendum for Edgemont residents to vote on whether to become Greenburgh’s seventh village.