What happened at Viola Estates in Ramapo gives us hope that the tide is beginning to turn in that long-troubled town.
And we are confident that rules that my administration has put into place are helping that in that transformation.
It’s been less than two months since I announced that the county will take bold action to enforce the General Municipal Law and apply sanctions to get compliance. That means that anyone who wants to build in Rockland County will have to follow the rules or they will not get any county permit or service, including sewer or water hookups, curb cuts for driveways, addresses or anything else until all proper paperwork is done and done correctly.
You want to build condos in Rockland? Fine, but make sure you follow the rules or you will have to truck in water or build an outhouse to go with it.
This rule applies to all of Rockland County. But we all know that illegal, uncontrolled, irresponsible development is a major problem in only one of Rockland’s five towns – a problem that threatens the quality of life in the entire county.
Ramapo has long been a place of lawlessness when it comes to proper planning and adherence to rules and regulations.
In short, it was an open secret that the town and its leaders were more than willing to look the other way with developers, no matter how outrageous the plans.
And outrageous is the only way to describe what happened at Viola Estates.
The town and its kangaroo planning and zoning boards already approved a variance to allow a condominium development on the a five-acre piece of land across the street from Ramapo High School, property that was originally zoned for just one home per 1.74 acre.
So they stretched the rules to allow the developers to build multifamily housing – eight units per acre for a total of 44 units.
The developers still weren’t satisfied: They had no intention of building just 44 units. They installed extra kitchens, extra boilers, extra doors, extra electrical meters, extra water heaters. Everything anyone would need for extra apartments – all without permission.
How many extra? At least one, maybe more, in each approved apartment, bringing the total for a 44 unit project to a minimum of 88 units, likely more.
And so it goes in Ramapo.
Except for one thing. A group of courageous neighbors cried foul and fought back.
People like Shani Bechhofer and Gene Markowitz.
Shani founded a group called VERAFI – Viola Estates Residents Allied for Integrity. Gene took the effort and ran with it.
The neighbors organized and complained to the town that the developers weren’t following the rules. The town and its now-indicted building inspector and criminally convicted former supervisor, unsurprisingly, did nothing.
The neighbors hired a lawyer – an out-of-town lawyer who wasn’t beholden to either town officials or big developers. And they paid for that lawyer out of their own pockets.
Why should residents have to hire lawyers at their own expense to do the job that the town should be doing by enforcing zoning regulations?
They took on Ramapo and the developers. And they won. We just got word that the developers have agreed to remove the accessory apartments.
What makes their actions even more remarkable – and gives us hope for Ramapo – is that the neighbors and the developers are all members of the religious Jewish community.
We are seeing this more and more. Observant Jews who are part of Ramapo’s large and growing Orthodox and Hasidic communities fighting back against developers who are also Observant Jews.
That takes a lot of guts. They face condemnation from their own communities. But they were undeterred in their effort for fairness and the fight to preserve the quality of life for which they moved to Rockland. And as a former civic association president and now County Executive … I stand squarely in their corner!
This underscores an important point: The fight against overdevelopment in Ramapo is about a lot of things – quality of life, community, family, safety. It’s not about religion.
We hope that more people in Ramapo speak up against the wild and uncontrolled growth that long been the rule in that town.
And we are confident that steps my administration has taken, including the new emphasis on withholding permits to developments that don’t follow the rules, our Rental Registry and Rockland Codes Initiative, are all tools that bring order to Ramapo.
The future of Rockland County depends on it.