We’ve heard it so many times: Nothing can be done about all of the overbuilding in Ramapo. The whole process is corrupt, with builders and developers “somehow” getting variances and approvals that no reasonable person would grant, changing what once was a rural town into Brooklyn North.
It’s not only the loss of aesthetics – the space and natural beauty that many escaped the City to enjoy. The burden on infrastructure is reaching the breaking point. Just one small example: how long is your wait in local traffic during rush hours these days? (Hard to believe such a concept as “rush hour” exists in once-bucolic Monsey.) Much more important is how overdevelopment affects safety. Doesn’t your heart sink while driving up the hill on Rte. 306, praying that no toddler misjudge his scooter by just inches into oncoming traffic? How could anyone have approved this?
But what to do? No amount of objections at Planning, Zoning and Town Board meetings, no appeals to following laws and regulations, no basic seichel can match how local developers and their friends seem to have the politicians and other supposed public servants in their pockets. And so we stand by helplessly as more multifamily monstrosities get built willy-nilly, despite (or in spite of?) the protections of zoning laws and processes meant to act as a bulwark against all this – let’s call it what it is – abuse.
Well, things may be changing. One recent case highlights how far the abuse can go, and the degree to which right-minded residents coming together can fight it.
The case is Viola Gardens, a condominium development on Viola Road across from Ramapo High School. The 5.5-acre parcel was carved out of property owned at the time by a reform temple, whose prominent members include the town attorney and the chief building inspector’s wife. The following is based on a review of court documents in two cases brought against the developer of Viola Gardens.
The first case dealt with the developer’s efforts to “spot-zone” the property – downsizing a single zoning lot, a practice that is generally illegal. The lot allowed for 9 single-family homes, but the developer wanted to build condominium units for 44 families, almost 5 times the original density. A neighbor sued, and they settled on terms that nevertheless allowed the 44 units, but nothing more.
Once construction began, however, there were signs that the developer was building an additional apartment for each unit, breaking not only the agreement, but also local law since the spot-zoned lot he created did not permit accessory apartments. Additional apartments would have increased the density to 88 families, almost 10 times the original density of 9 families.
But here’s where things took a different turn. Although they were told there’s nothing they could do, it’s the way of the world here in Monsey, the neighbors grouped together, explored options and began raising money. A delegation met with developer. According to an affirmation filed in the neighbors’ subsequent action, the developer “plainly admitted at said meeting that, from the very inception of the Project, he had built and intends to sell the dwelling units as single units with accessory apartments.” The neighbors asked him to abide by his original agreement, but to no avail: “When asked if he would limit the Project to 44 units without accessory apartments,” the affirmation continues, “[the developer] flatly and repeatedly refused.”
The group then sought daas Torah from a major posek in choshen mishpat who said, according to a ksav shown to the author, that the neighbors were allowed to complain to the authorities and go to secular courts, and that there was no problem of mesirah.
The group made a formal complaint to the chief building inspector, detailing the ways the developer was breaking local laws and regulations. It was ignored.
At that point, the group had no choice but to go to court, commencing the second case in connection with this project. They named the developer, the builder and the chief building inspector as defendants. The defendants’ argument was expected – until the project is completely built and multiple families actually move in, there is no actual violation of any law. Plaintiffs argued that this would reward the defendants’ wrongdoing – at that point the town would say, as it’s done so often before, that it’s too late and claim they have no choice but to grant additional variances retroactively. Besides, the additional apartments may have already been built.
The judge wasn’t buying the defendants’ argument. He took judicial notice of the pervasive corruption in this town, thereby establishing such corruption as incontrovertible fact (itself a sorry statement on our affairs). Indeed, almost as if on cue, within days the co-defendant building inspector was arrested on over 100 felony charges of showing illegal favoritism to such builders and developers as his co-defendants.
Before ruling on plaintiffs’ request for a temporary restraining order, the judge ordered an inspection – not by the town, but by plaintiffs. Plaintiffs hired an architect and engineer who took pictures and compiled a formal site visit report. What they found was extraordinary, even by Ramapo standards. The report showed not just one additional apartment per unit (with separate boilers, heating units, plumbing lines, electrical panels – all clearly labeled for the additional apartment – even an additional kitchen), but at least three other additional apartments as well. As plaintiffs’ attorney stated, these egregious violations were nothing short of outright fraud.
The total number of additional apartments would have led to at least 176 families on land originally designated for 9, a density of almost 20 times, or 2000%, of what was contemplated under the zoning laws of the town. The development has a one-lane service road connecting to Viola Road, itself one lane in each direction. The enormity of the problem created when 176 families – each with, say, 5 to 10 children – need to enter and exit through a one-lane street onto Viola Road is mind-boggling.
The judge gave the town just one day to decide whether to order work stopped at the property. At that point, even the town could not look away. Over the developer’s objections, all work was halted completely by the time of the next days’ hearing, and the cozy relationship between the town and a developer, at least in this case, and at least for the time being, was broken.
No doubt the town and the developer, out of the harsh spotlight of the courtroom for now, are trying to figure out their next moves. But the nearby residents learned a valuable lesson: if they work together to raise resources, explore options pursuant to daas Torah, and take legal action where necessary then, with siyata dishmaya, not only can something be done to stop this abuse, but the abuse they stop may be much greater than they thought.