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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Oyster Bay at risk of becoming town of 'no'

The Town of Oyster Bay, in its quest for suburban perfection, is in danger of becoming Long Island's newest Land of No.

No leafleting.

That's what the town told San Francisco-based Jews for Jesus, which is locked in a legal battle with the town over a thrice-changed ordinance that would limit the group's ability to freely pass out fliers.

No soliciting.

That's what it told the day laborers who stand on a street corner, say, in Locust Valley looking for a job. The town contends that it is, as it should be, dealing with health and safety issues.

But why not go with a stronger anti-loitering ordinance that would not, de-facto, single out Latino men?

The town's anti-solicitation ordinance probably - like similar laws aimed at illegal immigrants in other communities around the nation - will be declared unconstitutional.

Already, civil rights groups and the Nassau chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union are gearing up to challenge the measure.

But there's another town restriction that is aggressively being challenged by the state Division of Human Rights.

That's the priority list the town placed on two affordable housing developments, that were offered first to village residents, then to school district residents, then to town residents, then to Nassau County residents and, finally, to all others.

This week, the U.S. Justice Department's civil rights division notified the town it was investigating complaints about the affordable housing program as well.

According to a complaint by the state Division of Human Rights, a priority list in a majority-white town effectively discriminates against people of color who are also looking for affordable housing. The state took the unusual step of launching the investigation on its own, without a complaint from someone directly affected.

The investigation "is part of a national trend," James Mulvaney, the division's deputy commissioner for external relations, said yesterday.

"There are questions about set-asides that do nothing more than maintain the status quo for another generation," he said. "If we are going to have housing that is affordable, it should also be accessible to all citizens, not just some people's children."

In a letter to town Supervisor John Venditto, the federal Justice Department said it would work to determine whether the town's Golden Age and Next Generation housing developments violated the Fair Housing Act "because it appears to restrict the ability of non-residents of the town to purchase homes under the programs."

Venditto scoffed at the notion that the town was unwelcoming to Latinos, Jews for Jesus or anyone else.

And as for the investigations, he said in an interview, "In my opinion, the actions of the federal and state governments are tantamount to social engineering."

Venditto said, repeatedly, that he was elected to serve town residents. "I openly, unabashedly, unapologetically, unashamedly give priority to residents because that's my job."

That's not racial discrimination, he said. "For someone to say, well your population is X, well, that's what I inherited," Venditto said. "That doesn't mean that we don't like Y and Z people. It's just that that's what I have to govern. That's the way it is."

A recent court decision in New Jersey will result in municipalities opening up housing for different economic groups; a decision in Westchester County will result in economic and racial diversity in communities there, too.

Oyster Bay is not the only municipality on Long Island that sets, or is seeking to set, priorities in housing. Which means that the results of the federal and the state investigation will reach far beyond that town's borders.

Last month, Oyster Bay lost a legal challenge to the state complaint. And Venditto said the town will keep fighting, both the state and federal government.

"I think," he said, "that you could see this go all the way to the Supreme Court."

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