The quiet and privacy surrounding the Sacramentine Nuns in Scarsdale could soon dissipate if a developer is successful in building an apartment complex across from the contemplative order’s monastery.
Two lawsuits have been filed—one, a $26 million federal lawsuit against the town and religious order, and the other, a state court case against property owners in the subdivision seeking to extinguish enforcement of a covenant. The court has ruled in the latter that the covenant, which bars the construction of tenements and so-called flat houses, means apartment buildings.
The discovery process in the federal case is just beginning. The discovery phase in the state court case concluded Feb. 2.
The developer is not seeking any damages in the state court case. Now that discovery has ended there, the rules allow the parties to move for summary judgment by which the court may determine the outcome of the case without any need for a trial. An attorney representing the religious sisters said he expects the developer and the Sisters to each move for summary judgment in the state court case.
In both cases, the Sisters have asserted a counter-claim for the diminution in the value of their property as a religious retreat if the covenant is deemed unenforceable.
Sister Mary Francis Blackmore, O.S.S., prioress of the Sacramentine Nuns, shared why the apartment complex is a concern for her and the three other sisters who reside at Blessed Sacrament Monastery at 86 Dromore Road.
“We wouldn’t have our privacy. We wouldn’t have quiet,” she told CNY in a telephone interview Jan. 22. “We came here for quiet, for our prayer life, and we feel that it would be taken from us.”
Their prayer life includes Adoration before the Blessed Sacrament. “We have people coming to our chapel and also staying at the cottage when they are on retreat. And they, too, are looking for quiet.
“That’s why we are here, so that people from outside—priests, religious and laypeople—come to find the quiet and the peace that’s on the grounds, so that they can be one in prayer with the Lord.”
A covenant on the properties of the subdivision since the early 1900s stipulates that neither tenements nor flat houses should be built there.
Nearly 40 years ago, a partial waiver of the covenant permitted the construction of some apartment buildings along a commercial thoroughfare in the subdivision. To get the partial waiver, everyone in the subdivision had to agree.
There was no agreement that would waive enforcement of the covenant between the property owned by the sisters and the property owned by the plaintiff.
The sisters purchased their property in 1996. The previous owner was the Paulist Fathers, who had purchased it in 1965. In 1980, the Paulist Fathers agreed to a partial release of the covenant to allow for the construction on certain lots in the subdivision that cannot physically be seen from what is now the sisters’ property.
In 2006, the developer acquired the 2.3-acre property where the apartment complex would be built.
At morning prayer one day that December, the sisters heard noise and were surprised to discover the vacant, single-family house in front of their convent was being demolished.
At issue was whether the property was zoned for single-family homes or zoned in a commercial area for shopping centers, restaurants and multifamily housing.
In early 2013, the sisters learned there would be a hearing at the Greenburgh Town Hall about the future plans for the property.
At a second meeting, it was disclosed that research showed there were restrictive covenants on properties in the subdivision that could have a bearing on whether multifamily housing could be built.
An examination of the files for the closing of the property for the sisters in 1996 showed the title insurance policy and the title report prepared by the title insurance company for the sisters before they bought, disclosed the same covenants.
The sisters “are vigorously defending their religious rights,” said Robert Bernstein, managing partner of Bernstein & Associates, an attorney representing the sisters.
They contend that losing the protection of the covenant will infringe upon their religious rights to worship in the manner they feel is necessary to their charism.
“They feel the noise alone from the construction will disturb their peace, and then having an apartment building basically in front of their convent will destroy the sense of privacy and tranquility that they thought they were getting when they chose this as their religious home.
“This is devastating to them,” Bernstein continued.
The sisters’ property is 6.7 acres. At one side is the Greenburgh Nature Center, also part of the subdivision, which spans 33 acres. Behind the sisters are three small, undeveloped lots, a few acres each, owned by the Edgemont School District, he added.
“So here you have this oasis, that they’ve selected as their religious retreat,” Bernstein said. “There’s quite a bit of commercial development along the main thoroughfare, Central Avenue, but you can’t see it from their property.”
Bernstein noted that a zoning dispute that preceded the dispute over the covenants was a dispute about which the sisters were not aware. “It stemmed from the fact that the town of Greenburgh made a mistake in its zoning map,” Bernstein said, noting that the property that the developer purchased had always been in the single-family residential zoning district, that allowed only single-family homes on half-acre lots.
“But because of an error by a draftsman at the town, that single lot that the developer purchased was mis-marked as being in the Central Avenue commercial district. It was a mistake,” Bernstein continued, “but no one knew about it.”
Subsequently, the sisters lost the protection of the zoning code, which would have restricted the property to single-family homes because the town made a mistake in its zoning map and did not properly correct it.
“The courts have ruled that it can’t be corrected or adjusted now because the developer (for this project) had a right to rely on the map,” Bernstein said. “That, of course, doesn’t deal with the covenants.”
“At some point,” Bernstein added, “people just have to say, this is wrong.”
The litigation has affected the sisters, Sister Mary Francis said, in that “we don’t know what’s going to happen to us. We just take it one day at a time, and pray that nothing will change, that we will have our quiet.
“The sisters are concerned for the future,” she said.