Legislation

Gov. Hochul signs bills raising population requirement for new villages — except for Vizhnitz’s Ateres

For decades, any group of 500 people could incorporate a new village, but the requirement has now been raised to 1,500 — nixing plans for the proposed village of Seven Springs near Kiryas Joel

Gov. Kathy Hochul with New Square mayor Israel Spitzer. Credit: Mike Groll/Office of Governor Kathy Hochul

Dec 29, 2023 2:00 PM

Updated: 

As two Hasidic communities in upstate New York seek incorporation as villages, New York governor Kathy Hochul signed two bills last week that make it harder for new villages to be formed. According to Lohud, the governor negotiated an exception for Vizhnitz Hasidim who have proposed a new village called Ateres — but not for Hasidim in Orange County who want to form a village next to Kiryas Joel called Seven Springs.

Village incorporation allows a community to elect a mayor, pass laws, and modify zoning rules, such as those governing housing density. Under the previous laws, the village incorporation process was relatively simple for any group of at least 500 residents. The new laws, which were sponsored by senators James Skoufis and Andrea Stewart-Cousins, increase the population requirement and demand impact studies regarding the potential effects of incorporation.

Part of the stated intention behind the new laws is to prevent situations in which small villages struggle to govern themselves. “I agree with the Legislature that our village incorporation procedures are due for modernization,” Hochul wrote in a bill-signing memo, according to Lohud. “We want our villages and surrounding towns to thrive.”

Skoufis’s bill originally sought to raise the population requirement from 500 to 2,000, but Hochul negotiated that number down to 1,500. Skoufis’s bill also requires studies to assess the potential effects of village incorporation on local taxes and government services. Stewart-Cousins’s bill creates a state commission that reviews impact studies and can block villages from forming.

Neither Ateres nor Seven Springs meets the new population threshold, but Hochul ensured that the bill allowed an exception for Ateres through a provision that allows villages far along in the incorporation process to go through with it. Residents of the proposed village of Ateres are scheduled for a Jan. 18 vote on whether to incorporate.

Meanwhile, Herman Wagschal, the leader of the Seven Springs proposal, and his attorney Steve Barshov, told the Albany Times-Union they won’t give up on the attempt to form a village. Barshov described two legal strategies for proceeding: challenging court rulings that prevented Seven Springs from becoming a village sooner, and challenging the constitutionality of the two new laws.

“That right (to petition) has been violated by this law,” Barshov told the Albany Times-Union. “Whether that is a violation of the federal constitution, the state constitution, or both, is something that I am looking into right now.”

If incorporated, Seven Springs would be even larger than Kiryas Joel and includes substantial parcels of undeveloped land. But the proposed village has been tied up in court, partly because of opposition from Kiryas Joel, which would rather control that land itself, and partly because of opposition from other residents in the town of Monroe.

Both Seven Springs and Ateres have faced opposition from non-Hasidic neighbors who suspect that leaders of the new villages would seek to build high-density housing. In the case of Seven Springs, neighbors suspect that petitioners, who include real estate professionals, see substantial business opportunities if Seven Springs were to be incorporated as a village.

“The Seven Springs fiasco, which would have proven an impossible lift for local taxpayers all so a couple of wealthy developers could make a buck, has come to an end,” Skoufis said in a statement hailing Hochul’s signing, according to Lohud. Skoufis represents Kiryas Joel and the town of Monroe in the state senate.

In signing the bills, Hochul weakened a tool used for decades by both Hasidic communities and their non-Hasidic neighbors to isolate themselves from each other. The Hasidic villages of Kiryas Joel, Kaser, and New Square all benefited from the previous village incorporation laws, as did several non-Hasidic communities that were near Hasidic enclaves.

Lauren Hakimi is a journalist whose work has appeared in The Forward, Jewish Telegraphic Agency, New York Jewish Week, WNYC/Gothamist and more. She graduated from CUNY Hunter College with degrees in history and English literature. Hailing from an Iranian Jewish community on Long Island, she looks forward to shining a light on stories that matter to the Jewish community. Follow her on Twitter @lauren_hakimi.