FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Carlo A. C. de Oliveira, Attorney
July 31, 2015(Cooper Erving & Savage LLP)
LAWSUIT FILED AGAINST MUNICIPALITY FOR USING ZONING LAWS
TO DISCRIMINATE AGAINST THE MENTALLY ILL
On July 30, 2015, the law firm of Cooper Erving & Savage LLP filed a federal civil action in the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York alleging that the City of Ogdensburg, in the County of St. Lawrence, discriminated against Step by Step, Inc., a Not-for-Profit organization that provides outpatient mental health services for individuals with mental illness in the City of Ogdensburg.
The lawsuit alleges that the City of Ogdensburg violated The Fair Housing Act and The Americans With Disability Act when it denied Step by Step Inc.’s application to rezone an area formerly occupied by an elementary school from a Single Family Residential (“SFR”) to a Planned Development District (“PDD”).
Step by Step has been providing outpatient mental health support services for individuals with mental illnesses in the City of Ogdensburg since 1997. In September 2014, Step by Step purchased a parcel of land located at 1515 Knox Street in the City of Ogdensburg for the purpose of redeveloping the existing former school building to provide for a combination of supportive housing, respite/hospital diversion housing, rental office space for other non-for-profit organizations, and mental health support services to individuals with mental illnesses. Because 1515 Knox Street is zoned in a single family residential area, Article IX of the City Code required Step by Step to file a PDD application to have the area rezoned from a SFR to a PDD. The Complaint alleges that Step by Step complied with all requirements set forth in the City Code but that the City Council, pressured by community members opposing Step by Step’s project voted to deny Step by Step’s application.
According to the complaint, the City of Ogdensburg ignored its own laws and procedures governing rezoning applications in order to appease the discriminatory viewpoints of members of the community when it decided to deny Step by Step’s application. The Complaint provides a chronology of Step by Step’s application process and the City Council’s attempt to place Step by Step’s application on hold indefinitely until the Council could pass a more restrictive Adaptive Reuse District law that would allow for greater public input in the Council’s decision making process. The debate over Step by Step’s application in the City Council can be viewed at the City of Ogdensburg website: at http://www.ogdensburg.org/index.aspx?nid=107 under “Council Meetings.” It is clear from the City Council meetings that Step by Step’s rezoning application focused on the population Step by Step serves rather than the criteria necessary to have a zoning change approved under the City Code. During the application process, City residents opposing Step by Step’s application referred to Step by Step’s patients as “these people,” “mentals,” and “sex offenders,” while City Council members spoke of the need to protect the community from PDD applications such as the one filed by Step by Step.
The City of Ogdensburg denied Step by Step’s application preventing Step by Step from moving its services to 1515 Knox Street. As a result, Step by Step will not be able to provide housing opportunities to its patients and other individuals in the community suffering from mental illnesses and who are living under conditions that are not conducive to their well-being.
Attorney Carlo A. C. de Oliveira said that his client tried to avoid litigation at all costs; however, Step by Step could not sit idle in face of such blatant discriminatory treatment against the mentally ill by the City of Ogdensburg. David Bayne, Executive Director of Step by Step, stated that Step by Step was seeking to provide services to the community by keeping individuals suffering from mental illnesses out of the streets and out of the hospitals by providing them the support necessary to become productive members of society. “Step by Step’s services help save taxpayers’ money!” “Now, the City faces a lawsuit that will undoubtedly and unnecessarily cost money to the taxpayers the City could be saving.” De Oliveira stated that the City of Ogdensburg ignored a letter he sent to the Mayor dated May 27, 2015 advising the City of the legal ramifications of allowing the community’s illegal prejudices to control the Council’s decision making process regarding Step by Step’s application. “It was disheartening to see that the Council had no intention of considering the merits of Step by Step’s application but, instead, it focused on Step by Step’s patients.” “The Council meetings turned into a public lynching of Step by Step and its patients but the merits of Step by Step’s application were never discussed.” “There was no hope that this Council would ever approve an application made by Step by Step to rezone 1515 Knox Street to provide services to the mentally ill.” “Filing a lawsuit was inevitable.”
De Oliveira also stated that his client plans on seeking a preliminary injunction to order the City of Ogdensburg to approve Step by Step’s application on the grounds that Step by Step and its patients have suffered and will continue to be irreparably harmed if Step by Step is not permitted to provide housing services to its members at 1515 Knox Street.