|Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, front, and Englewood Mayor Michael Wildes survey the remains of the trees felled by the Libyan mission next door. All photos by Josh Lipowsky|
Whether or not Libyan leader Muammar Kaddafi comes to Englewood next month – and as of Wednesday, the U.S. government reportedly has asked Libya to make alternate arrangements – Rabbi Shmuley Boteach plans to file a lawsuit against the Libyan government.
According to Boteach, whose home is next door to the Libyan mission in Englewood, construction efforts at the once-derelict site on Palisades Avenue have redoubled in the past few days, leading to speculation that Kaddafi indeed intends to stay there when he addresses the United Nations in September.
“I saw as many as 40 vehicles there this morning, working feverishly,” he told The Jewish Standard on Tuesday.
Boteach held a press conference that day to show reporters the site of his former fence – removed by the mission’s construction company without his knowledge and consent – as well as several downed trees, left lying in the yard.
“I have no choice but to file a suit,” said the rabbi, a columnist for this newspaper and the author of books about relationships. He said that the Libyan mission’s construction manager, with whom he had established a kind of rapport, “abruptly changed his attitude after the media frenzy resulting from Libya’s public welcome of mass-murdering terrorist” Abdel Basset al-Megrahi in Libya. The manager has now made it clear that he no longer has the ability to settle the property dispute, said Boteach. Nor has the Libyan embassy responded to the rabbi’s calls.
“I want to enact justice” from the Libyan government, said Boteach, “to divert funds from blowing up planes to planting trees. It’s a more positive use of the funds.”
He acknowledged, however, that “it’s a David and Goliath situation…. The Libyan government has an open spigot of funding.”
Libya is “spending millions on this house but won’t give $1 to the city of Englewood for basic services,” he said.
Last week, the Standard reported Boteach’s offer to host Kaddafi at his home, should the Libyan leader demonstrate that he no longer supports terrorism. But, said Boteach, Kaddafi’s embrace of al-Megrahi persuaded him that nothing had changed.
The rabbi said he was on the verge of filing a lawsuit through his attorney, David Wecht of the firm Kim & Bae of Fort Lee.
The view from Englewood
Together with Englewood Mayor Michael Wildes, Boteach will hold a rally on Sunday in an effort to prevent Kaddafi’s visit.
“A lot of people are adamantly opposed to an international funder of terrorism coming to Englewood,” he said. “If he’s granted a visa, I hope they will pitch his tent on a barge in the East River where he and his security can be better monitored.”
Boteach pointed out that, should he come to Englewood, Kaddafi “will bring a small army of security personnel.” He noted that Al-Megrahi was a member of the Libyan intelligence service. “We’ll have many of them using state-of-the-art surveillance equipment to protect Kaddafi, which will severely compromise the very privacy of my home,” he said, adding that whether Kaddafi ultimately comes or not, the property next door is owned by the Libyan government and “now that I’ve come out so publicly and forcefully against [Kaddafi], they can’t have warm feelings toward me.”
Boteach further noted that while Englewood “is the kind of city that can be very tough on its residents, it’s amazing how they have fast-tracked all the building requests by the Libyans.”
He said local synagogues often have immense difficulty getting permission “to set up a tent for a bar mitzvah. The East Hill Synagogue has been fighting the city planning officials constantly just to move their building plans forward. And their residents pay huge taxes. But here, with the Libyan Embassy that for 25 years has not paid even $1 of tax, everything was expedited, fast-tracked. Why was [the construction] allowed? I’d like to see all of the records of applications made by the Libyans and [know] why it was all expedited.”
While Boteach maintains that the felled trees were on his property – a fact acknowledged up to now by the construction crew at the Libyan mission – a city official is suggesting that the trees may have been on Libyan property.
Assemblyman Gordon M. Johnson (D-37) told the Standard that he spoke to members of the Englewood town administration about the issue and “[Englewood Construction Official] Peter Abballe told me there’s a question as to whose property the trees are on. It has to be straightened out, mediated.” Abballe could not be reached for comment.
According to Englewood City Engineer Kenneth Alpert, the Libyan mission’s contractors were “not in compliance” with town regulations when they cut down the trees.
|Dozens of crates holding papers have been delivered to the Libyan mission in recent weeks. The mission tore down a section of Boteach’s chain-link fence and replaced it with this cast iron fence.|
“The tree ordinance requires that they take out a permit,” he said. “They need a replanting schedule.” Alpert said the mission did not obtain a permit and that the town has asked it to apply for one.
“We hope to have it this week,” he said, adding that a “stop work” order has been issued pending receipt of the documents. The town, however, cannot “physically enforce” the order but can only levy fines “that get more and more extreme.”
“They’ve assured us that they will be complying with the ordinance, but they haven’t yet,” he said. He noted also that the mission is responsible for removing debris resulting from cutting down the trees.
Crystal Brown, co-chair of Englewood’s Environmental Commission, said town regulations forbid cutting down trees on someone else’s property.
Even cutting down trees on one’s own property is hedged with certain restrictions. Only a certain number of trees of a certain diameter and age may be cut without a permit, she said, noting, however, that “the regulations are vague as they now stand.”
Exceptions occur when a tree is either very old or is “uncommon in its size and its age to this area.” In that case, a permit would be required and the homeowner would need a corroborating statement by a certified arborist.
In the case of a neighbor’s tree, an individual would need to do several things to bring about its removal. First, he would have to inform the owner of the tree that he was hiring an arborist to evaluate the tree’s condition. Second, if the expert agreed that the tree posed a danger, the aggrieved neighbor would need to provide the report to the tree owner, “putting him on notice.”
“It’s always easiest to cut it down” and plead ignorance, said Brown, pointing out that the fine for such behavior is not high. “We’re trying to put teeth into the ordinance so that people don’t take the easy way out.”
Brown also noted that, in the case of private companies, there is an obligation after cutting down trees to “cut them up, ground them up, or whatever needs to be done.”
She said that the most effective way to redress the situation would be to “institute a Q alert and make an online complaint” to the Department of Public Works. “Someone must then dispose of [the claim] in a timely manner,” she said. “They can’t deny they got the Q alert,” said Brown, citing its public nature.
But for Boteach, the main concern has been that the trees were cut down for security purposes. “I would like the City of Englewood to inform me of what surveillance and monitoring equipment the Libyans are installing to protect Kaddafi. This is a residential community and the thought of Libyan intelligence officials having the power to intrude upon our privacy is extremely worrying.”
‘Blood on his hands’
Rep. Steven Rothman, a former mayor of Englewood, recalls that in December 1982, immediately prior to being sworn in, “we got word that several Libyan individuals had purchased a rundown mansion on the hill in Englewood. We were further told that Muammar Kaddafi planned to take up temporary residence and bring his entourage with him.”
Rothman said he called the State Department asking for help, specifically to learn if the town could take advantage of the newly enacted foreign missions act, setting conditions on the use of U.S property by foreign nationals.
“After months of negotiations, the State Department issued a letter to the Libyan government announcing restrictions at the mansion to [accommodate] only the Libyan ambassador to the U.N., his wife and children, for residential recreational purposes only.”
“There was to be no diplomatic mission there and no other people of Libyan nationality to be present,” said Rothman, adding that “if the Libyan government sought a waiver of those restrictions, it had to get prior approval from the State Department.”
Rothman said that as soon as he heard the rumor about Kaddafi’s impending visit, he called the State Department and the White House.
“I’ve spoken with them many times over the weekend and today,” he said on Tuesday, noting that he “talked to people at the highest levels at both the White House and the State Department and both the president and the secretary of state are aware of the situation.”
“I also said I hoped the White House and State Department would be as successful in upholding the restriction as the Reagan White House and State Department were in enacting it,” he said.
“I volunteered that I acknowledged that the U.S. as the host nation of the U.N. has an obligation to provide a location for foreign visitors to the U.N. to take residence in. It was my strong belief that the only appropriate place for such residence was New York City.”
Rothman noted that federal and state funds are available “to provide the resources and personnel to assure the safety of foreign visitors to the U.N. and, most important, to provide for the safety of the local residents.
“Any single family residential neighborhood in the suburbs would be inappropriate,” he said. “I thought it also important to take cognizance of the fact that in my opinion – and in the opinion of many of my constituents – this foreign individual who might be seeking to reside in Englewood was a murderous dictator with American blood on his hands who had only a few days ago sponsored an elaborate celebration for the mass-murdering Lockerbie bomber’s return to Libya.”
Rothman’s office issued a statement later on Tuesday indicating that while the Libyan government has not made a decision about where Kaddafi will stay, “the U.S. government has strongly urged the Libyan government that if Kaddafi does come to the United States for the opening of the General Assembly, he should not stay in Englewood.”
According to Rothman, “If he were to do so, it could create a situation that may be dangerous to the citizens of Englewood and it would reflect very poorly on the nation of Libya. We are hopeful that, within the next few days, the Libyan government will make it clear that Mr. Kaddafi will not be coming to Englewood.”
Sen. Frank Lautenberg has written to Clinton as well, asking that “travel restrictions be placed on any visa issued to Colonel Kaddafi limiting him to travel only in the United Nations Headquarters District” defined as the land in New York City located between 42nd and 48th Streets and First Avenue and the Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive.
Citing Libya’s warm reception for al-Megrahi, Lautenberg said that “allowing Colonel Kaddafi to travel freely in the U.S. would be an affront to the families of the Pan Am 103 victims….. I am deeply disappointed that the Libyan government chose to ignore appeals by President Obama to resist a celebration of Mr. Megrahi’s return to the country.”
Lautenberg added that he is “particularly concerned by news reports indicating that Colonel Kaddafi plans to stay in New Jersey, where the families of many Pan Am 103 victims reside.”
Englewood Mayor Wildes told the Standard that while the dates of Kaddafi’s visit – should it occur – have not yet been confirmed, it is assumed that he would remain in the area from a few days to two weeks.
“Overtime itself for police personnel could be in excess of $20,000 per day,” said Wildes. “It is my prayer that we stand strong and unite as a community in solidarity with the memory of the 38 souls who once lived in our state and who perished on Pan Am Flight 103.”
Assemblyman Johnson said he not only has a problem with Englewood hosting the leader of a state that supports terrorism against the United States and its allies, but that a visit from Kaddafi would “tax the police department and create a spike in police overtime” because of heightened security needs – not only for the visiting dignitaries but for neighbors and protesters as well. Ultimately, he said, “the taxpayers will be paying” for the visit, should it take place.
He added that he has “full confidence” that the chief of police will be able to deal with these concerns. While he has not yet seen the proposed security plan, he suggested that it might involve cooperation with other police departments, whether from other towns or from the county, state, or even the federal government.
Boteach invites the community to join him in a protest at 11 a.m. on Sunday at the corner of South Woodland and East Palisade avenues in Englewood.
Rebecca Boroson and Josh Lipowsky contributed to this report.