Commentary from Robert I. Rhodes, Ph. D., Chairman, Preserve Ramapo
Ramapo has a hero in the county legislature. His name is Aron Wieder. A man of great courage, he has taken on the burdensome defense of our Hasidic community. Whenever it is suggested that high density housing is overwhelming Ramapo’s resources he goes on the attack. This argument, he charges, is an anti-Semitic slur directed against his community.
But Wieder is not a hero, he is a racist. He knows that much of the housing that has been built in recent years for his community was built on land formerly occupied by modest homes owned by Black and Brown families. They were block busted out of their homes. Most of the rest of the high-density developments in Ramapo were built on vacant land that had been drastically down-zoned as a gift to Hasidic developers.
As long as Black and Brown residents of Ramapo were the primary victims of the massive growth of high-density development political resistance was relatively limited. But now we have a Hasidic population of perhaps 50,000 that may double in the next ten years. This demographic reality has led to a political dog fight.
Aron Wieder and his close associate Ramapo supervisor Michael Specht, our, are fronting for the Hasidic developers who have done exceedingly well buying land zoned for single family homes and getting outrageous variances that allow them to build apartment houses.
What is going on here?
Almost twenty years ago after the death of Ramapo Supervisor Herbert Reisman Christopher St. Lawrence became our supervisor. He lost little time before he announced a new comprehensive [land use] plan for Ramapo.
The new plan tripled the growth that would be allowed in Monsey but protected low density areas in the north end of unincorporated Ramapo. Almost immediately, even the modest limits defined in this plan were ignored as high-density housing was approved by our most cooperative planning and zoning boards of appeals (ZBA). Their members were, of course, appointed by St. Lawrence with the approval of his stooge town board.
While our zoning was the victim of death by a thousand cuts, Michael Specht, Ramapo’s town attorney to the ZBA, provided the boiler plate for hundreds of illegal variances that allowed very high-density building in blatant violation of our comprehensive plan.
Shortly after St. Lawrence’s conviction for federal bond fraud, Michael Specht was rewarded for his loyalty and became our new town supervisor.
The Hasidic builders who control Ramapo believe the time has come for high-density housing throughout Ramapo. So, Michael Specht and his supine town board have launched the first phase of this plan.
The primary justification the town cited for the high-density Pascack Ridge project and its associated zone change was that the town’s population was growing so rapidly that the town had no choice but to meet the demand for housing created by the population explosion.
Consider the obvious result if we build ever more high-density housing. Ramapo can’t support a population that at its current rate of growth may soon double every decade. We are facing a demographic, environmental and fiscal disaster.
Though Wieder cries anti-Semitism, the reality remains that our infrastructure was built for a low-density residential community. Routes 45, 59 and East Maple Avenue have become a traffic-choked disaster. Most of Ramapo’s other roads are old and narrow two-lane roads. They were not designed for heavy traffic
Flooding is exacerbated by overdevelopment. Our sanitary sewers were not designed to deal with flooding and we have few storm sewers. Despite the wide-spread illegal sump pumps that send water from flooded home basements into our sanitary sewer lines, flooded basements and roads are now common in Ramapo.
Hasidic leaders assure us that G_d will provide. This is not a rational response.
Housing is the most critical need of the Hasidic community Young people are expected to marry at a very young age and have large families. Yet the shortage of housing for young Hasidic families is severe. Many of these young people are angry because they know the cost of housing is a rip-off. Nevertheless, the desperation of young people and their parents supports the highly profitable business of our Hasidic developers who are also encouraging more young Hasidic families to move into Ramapo. Housing costs are high here but they are much higher in Brooklyn.
This is how the highly profitable business of our Hasidic developers works. Let’s take a simple illustration: In Ramapo it is possible to buy a modest three-bedroom home that was built forty or fifty years ago for $400,000. The developers know that after consolidating a lot with four of these homes into a larger lot they can build a hundred-unit apartment house. Their total land cost is $1.6 million. If we divide this by one hundred, we have a per unit land cost of only $16,000. This very low cost per unit enables them to make a very large profit while providing housing at a relatively affordable price. Of course, this housing would be cheaper still if most of the savings in land cost were passed on to the purchasers. Moreover, as open land becomes increasingly scarce, our town fathers are extending their generosity to the developers by downzoning whatever land is still vacant.
The protection money developers return to the community through their support of schools and shuls discourages rabbis who might otherwise complain about the excessive profits that are made at the expense of their community.
Preserve Ramapo tried to limit the political influence of the developers by creating a ward system. Its defeat in a rigged referendum has made political opposition to Hasidic expansion in Ramapo very difficult.
Aron Wieder wants us to condemn “anti-Semitism” in Rockland. This is a smokescreen to discourage an honest discussion of development. He wants us to debate the extent of our “anti-Semitism” rather than the racism and gross irresponsibility of the Ramapo town board and the Hasidic developers who control it.
Robert I Rhodes, Ph.D., Chairman, Preserve Ramapo