The last election in the quiet, one-stoplight village of Bloomingburg brought out only two dozen voters.
But that was before a bitter feud broke out between locals and an Orthodox developer over a 396-unit housing development being marketed to Hasidic Jews that would likely more than double the village’s population.
With the pro-development Mayor Mark Berentsen facing a spirited challenge, more than 100 new voters have registered to vote in the March 18 contest, many of them using addresses of buildings owned by Lamm in the village.
Community members opposed to the development accuse Shalom Lamm, the developer behind the project, of trying to influence the outcome of the election to ensure Berentsen stays in power.
Berentsen’s challenger, Frank Gerardi, and his slate of candidates from the Rural Heritage Party, are opposed to Lamm’s development in Bloomingburg. Earlier this year, a member from the same party won an election for town supervisor in the Town of Mamakating, the town which Bloomingburg sits within.
Lamm filed objections to the nominating petitions for Gerardi and his fellow candidates last month, but a Sullivan County Supreme Court Judge dismissed the objections, the Times Herald-Record reported earlier today.
Some opponents of the development countered by accusing Lamm of voter fraud and are skeptical as to whether the newly registered voters live in Bloomingburg or have lived there for the 30 days necessary to be eligible to vote. Community members, including a Rural Heritage candidate, have filed challenges of 39 of the new voters, the local paper reported.
In one two-story building, more than 20 people are reportedly now registered to vote. “For the amount of people that are registered, very few new faces are in town,” said Bloomingburg resident Teek Persaud, a member of an anti-development group called the Rural Community Coalition.
Lamm blasted the accusations of voter fraud as “false and offensive.” In an email to the Forward, he wrote, “Anyone visiting Bloomingburg will see many new families living in multiple locations in the Village. Instead of harassing these new residents it would be wonderful if these ‘activists’ would work together with the whole community to make Bloomingburg better.”
Lamm has asserted that the harsh opposition to his development project is rooted in anti-Semitic bigotry. Last week, a small group of protesters held a demonstration outside of a proposed girls school, which the Times Herald-Record said opponents now claim is being used illegally as a mikveh.
“It is a sad day that in 2014 Jews cannot move somewhere and practice their religion without threats of disruption and harassment from ill-intentioned people,” Lamm said in a statement issued to the paper.
Yet many residents say they are concerned with the impact the new development could have on the area and what they say are violations of law, not the religious identity of those moving in.
The Rural Community Coalition, a group founded to oppose the development, has not been involved in the election campaign and has not endorsed a candidate. But Persaud, also an owner of the local diner, says that this month’s election could have a strong impact on the future of the development.
“Considering that the developer has bought up [so many of the properties], these elections are very important,” he said.