Charges of anti-Semitism and counter-charges of slander have flown over plans to build an affordable housing project in Howell on property owned by a Queens-based Orthodox seminary.
The 27-acre property west of Route 9 is owned by the Rabbinical Seminary of America, an 82-year-old institution in Flushing, NY, also known as Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim. In October, the Howell township’s planning board unanimously approved a preliminary major site plan for a 72-unit affordable housing project on the land.
At a Nov. 9 town council meeting, Howell Mayor William Gotto accused residents of posting “absolutely disgusting” anti-Semitic remarks on community Facebook pages discussing the plans. In turn, administrators of one of the pages, Howell Happenings NJ, accused the mayor of slandering them.
In a phone interview, Gotto said he grew alarmed at remarks he told NJJN were posted to the Facebook pages by 20-30 different people. The posts, which have since been deleted, expressed concern that the complex would be dominated by Orthodox Jews, and noted that a new yeshiva is being built within walking distance of the complex.
Comments referred to nearby Lakewood, which has a large Orthodox population. “They want to take over Howell now,” wrote one commenter on an unspecified site, according to the Asbury Park Press. “Prevent our beautiful town from going to crap!” wrote another.
Gotto told NJ.com that misinformation was being spread linking the property’s ownership to Lakewood, leading to the outbursts on social media.
“I believe people posted those things out of fear,” said Gotto. “I don’t think they even realized those posts were anti-Semitic.”
The project, known as the Howell Family Apartments, will be partly funded by Hurricane Sandy recovery money. Howell residents still displaced from their homes as a result of the superstorm will be given preference in living there.
The property is being developed by the Walters Group of Barnegat. It signed a 55-year lease with the seminary, after which it will be able to own it outright.
Opponents say the plans on the wooded site would have a negative environmental impact and might drive down property values. A post at Howell Strong, a Facebook page opposing the plans, warns of continued legal battles if the township “does not keep the best interest of the residents and our quality of life and home values at the forefront of their decision making.”
Joshua Cohen, NJ regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, said he has been in contact with the mayor over the situation.
“From time to time we have these community issues come up with housing or zoning where community people have strong opinions — and we can have those conversations and we should have those conversations,” Cohen said. “But we should have them civilly and never cross the line, as has allegedly happened here, with racist or anti-Semitic language.”
In an open letter to the community, Gotto said elected officials have “a moral, ethical, and legal responsibility to provide factually correct information. Unfortunately, social media is not held to the same standard.”
Administrators of Howell Happenings NJ, a general community activity and message forum, in a statement to NJJN, claimed “it did not happen the way it was described.”
“Mayor Gotto made false comments about this page and slandered the admins and their character and morals,” according to the statement. “He owes us an apology for the situation he created. This is a great community page that offers it’s [sic] members open, honest, and respectable discussions. Please scroll down and follow our content and judge for yourself.”
The unofficial Facebook page lists township events, traffic updates, and local news.
Administrators of the page later sent a video of the mayor engaged in a heated argument with residents, which has been posted to YouTube, adding, “This is how Mayer Gotto treats residents (one of the admins of this page was one of the people trying to calm the situation down and maintain order and respect).”
Opposition to the plan has migrated to the Howell Strong Facebook page. Its posts and comments tend to focus on the corporate interests and political decision-making behind the project.
Gotto still stands by his remarks, but added, “This was something that happened over a short period of time. It was not what Howell is about. I think people were more upset about a completely different subject — affordable housing — and the conversations sort of became intertwined and went in a bad direction.”
He acknowledged his actions angered many, and said, “I’ve got people who want to sue me because they said I took away their First Amendment rights, which is ridiculous.”
Despite that, Gotto said, he believes “he hit a home run” through his stand because it educated people to be more sensitive when commenting. Not only have the offensive comments been deleted, but no new remarks with anti-Semitic overtones have appeared and, he said, the conversation seems to have gotten more civil.