The developer of a Dix Hills, L.I., condominium complex who Monday ordered residents to remove all outdoor religious displays — including wreaths and mezuzahs — backed down the next day and said he would allow the residents to decide their own rules.
“I want a committee of homeowners to make some recommendations and then I will have a meeting of all the homeowners so they can discuss it and come up with a reasonable accommodation for everybody,” said Lawrence Gresser, the developer.
Gresser said that despite Monday’s letter threatening to fine all violators $50 if they did not remove outdoor displays within three days, no fines would be levied.
“We’re not going to fine anybody for anything,” he said, adding that all previous fines for this violation have been waived.
Patti Werner, 55, moved into the 73-unit senior citizens’ gated community known as Stone Ridge Estates March 6 and was slapped with a $50 fine April 8 when she refused to remove the mezuzah on her front door post.
She said she had been told that she could keep the mezuzah displayed provided she bought a storm door.
“I refused,” she said. “I have no need for [the door]; they want you to hide it. I’m not hiding it. I’m proud of it.”
The Dix Hills flap is just the latest in a series of similar controversies that have developed in recent years throughout the country. Gresser said he heard there is now a similar incident elsewhere in Suffolk County. A similar case last year in Fort Lauderdale was resolved when a Jewish homeowner filed suit and the condominium backed down. Both the city of Chicago and the State of Illinois have passed laws to permit the display of mezuzahs, but a federal appeal court is now reviewing such laws.
Werner confessed to initially removing the mezuzah when she first received a letter from Gresser ordering it removed.
“But I got upset and sick to my stomach, so I put it back up,” she said.
A Reform Jew, Werner said she bought the mezuzah many years ago at Temple Judea of Manhasset, L.I., and that it had adorned her former home in Roslyn, L.I.
“It’s tarnished, but I got new mezuzahs for the inside of my house,” she said. “I have always had mezuzahs. When my son moved into his apartment in New York, I gave him a mezuzah from my great aunt. He put it up and nobody is harassing him.”
“I’m just a nice person who wanted a nice place where I could feel safe and secure and that I could call home,” Werner added.
Before Tuesday’s decision to allow the residents to decide for themselves whether to change the development’s bylaws that prohibit all outdoor signs or statuary, Rabbi Howard Buechler, spiritual leader of the Dix Hills Jewish Center, called the developers’ actions an “act of folly.”
“I’m not accusing the management agents of being anti-Semitic, but they are acting as moral midgets and creating an odious atmosphere,” he fumed.
“They have to realize that their action is closing the door to Jews buying in this complex and to Christians who want to put up wreaths for the holidays,” he said. “In America we are free to practice our faith, and these agents have gone down the path of folly and foolishness.”
Susan Berland, a member of the Huntington, L.I., Town Board, said she was called by Werner and had been “trying to do things in an unofficial capacity because I don’t think the town has jurisdiction to regulate what goes on in private condominium developments.”
She pointed out that the office of the state attorney general approved the condominium’s bylaws that prohibit any signs, advertisements or statuary on the exterior of any condominium unit.
“The idea is to have uniformity on the outside of the property,” Berland explained, adding that the bylaws are one thing and the “reality is another.”
“When you put individuals into their homes, they want to decorate as they see fit,” she said. “The problem with banning everything is that everyone in the community suffers. Nobody wants to be deprived of being able to express their individuality, whether through religious items or non-religious trinkets that they want to put on the outside of their front door.”
In her quest to fight the $50 fine, Werner reached out to lawmakers and others for help — even contacting a lawyer to weigh legal options.
Joel Levy of the New York office of the Anti-Defamation League, said his office too heard from Werner and that he was “very concerned” about her predicament.
“It’s very troubling,” he said. “She should definitely be allowed to display the mezuzah.”
Levy said he had heard that other residents had put up wreaths and had not been bothered, which he said would smack of discrimination. But Berland said all of the wreaths were covered by a storm door except one that went up in response to Werner’s mezuzah.
Frank Petrone, the supervisor of Huntington, said he found the bylaws prohibiting outdoor displays “preposterous.”
“Certainly I have a right to put a wreath on my door,” he said. “And I don’t think many people can see a mezuzah from the driveway, let alone from 10 feet way.”
For this to now cause a division in the development, Petrone said, was wrong and he volunteered to help mediate the situation.
“I’m willing to have a delegation of individual [owners] and the builder and the developer come to my office and we will tailor a set of standards that would be acceptable to most people,” he said.
Petrone said it could be done with “mutual respect” and to permit “people’s diversity” of expression.
“I look forward to them getting in contact with me so we can wake up people’s sensitivities or create them,” he said.
Gresser said he did not rule out accepting Petrone’s offer but first preferred to see if the residents could resolve the issue themselves.
“They are all ex-homeowners who had their homes of 30 or 40 years, and sometimes it’s a little difficult to get [the rules of] a condo community,” he said. “At this point I hope and expect that a reasonable solution will come out of this from the homeowners. It is their community and they have to live there.”