The headline in last Monday’s The Journal News read “Ramapo: State’s powers over building, fire inspections detailed.” Ramapo and Spring Valley now have State watchdogs “assigned to monitor the Ramapo Building Department [with] access to department records and [the power to] direct inspectors to address critical threats to life and public safety.” A proper subhead for the story could have been: “It’s about time.” The effort by local firefighters to get someone to step in and enforce the fire code regulations in the Town of Ramapo has been going on, literally, for decades. Standing in the way have been the federally indicted Christopher St. Lawrence, the Ramapo Town Board, and the bloc vote that keeps all of them in Town Hall.
To understand this sorry legacy of neglect requires a brief review of the history of tension between fire officials and numerous Ramapo and State politicians.
The Alarm Goes Off
January 4, 1960—At a meeting of the Moleston (Hillcrest) Fire District’s Board of Commissioners, the attorney for the district “reported on poor fire safety conditions in New Square, and [he, the attorney,] was instructed to confer with the County Fire Coordinator as to the proper action to be taken.” At this time, New Square had been in existence for six years.
43 years later, November 2003—Roy Scott, New York State safety code enforcement official, found that the Village of New Square, then in its 49th year, had not yet adopted a state-approved fire code, nor had it filed for an exemption. Both are state legal requirements.
In a letter to the Moleston Fire District commissioners, Scott wrote, “The violations in the Village of New Square are probably the worst example in our state’s history of noncompliance with state codes.”
In an investigative report in the Forward newspaper, staff writer Andrew Tobin offered the following explanation:
“Privately, Scott attributed New Square’s ability to ignore the law for so long to its political influence. According to minutes obtained by the Forward of a November 23, 2003 meeting with local politicians and fire officials hosted by the Moleston Fire District, after conducting his inspection, ‘Mr. Scott said he can go to any village or town in New York State to inspect structures, but he needs permission to go to New Square.’
The minutes related that ‘Mr. Scott said that Dorothy Harris, the Deputy Secretary of State, knows about the situation with the Village of New Square. New Square has made it known that it has connections with the Governor’s Office.’ ” See “New Square Flouts Building Safety Codes.”
Four years later, February 12, 2007—The local volunteers of the Moleston Fire District sent a resolution to the Town of Ramapo stating “by unanimous vote, the Moleston Fire District does hereby petition the Town Board of the Town of Ramapo to exclude the Village of New Square from the boundaries of the Moleston Fire District.” The resolution had been passed at the regular meeting of the Board of Fire Commissioners.
The volunteers itemized their reasons for wanting out in the three-page resolution, citing:
The abuse responders are subjected to in New Square,
The widespread code violations in the community,
The absence of a full-time code enforcement official and safety inspections,
The noncompliant multiple dwellings and wedding hall,
The lack of cooperation from New Square school officials,
The unsuccessful efforts to get officials to remedy the situation, and
The failure of the Ramapo Town Board to schedule a public hearing to discuss the problem despite requirements of Section 172-f of the Town Law.
Ultimately, the firefighters were ignored by the Town Board and St. Lawrence.
Two years later, January 14, 2009—The Ramapo Fire Chief’s Association sent an urgent letter to Supervisor St. Lawrence concerning unnecessary risks the volunteer firefighters faced in Ramapo due to building policies and violations there. They wrote, “These active Chiefs who supervise fire protection to the town and all its villages have become increasingly concerned by the conditions your firefighters are challenged with while trying to respond to fires and other emergencies within the Town of Ramapo. These conditions, in many cases are extremely serious and are putting the lives of the residents, firefighters, and other emergency workers in harm’s way. We are requesting a serious effort by all the Towns and Villages to assist us in performing our life saving services as efficiently as possible.”
The five areas of concern all centered around overbuilding and overcrowding and the lack of regard on the part of the Town for zoning and fire-code enforcement. The Chiefs who signed the letter are: Chief Ed Kelly (Hillburn), Chief Chris Kear (Hillcrest), Chief Douglass Perry (Monsey), Chief Kevin Hartnett (Sloatsburg), Chief Mike Johnson (Spring Valley), Chief John Dawson (Suffern), Chief Scott Meier (Tallman), and Chief Chris Schaber (South Spring Valley).
The Fire Chief’s Association concludes in a final paragraph: “The fire and building codes were designed and implemented because of deaths that have occurred throughout the country. By not following these state and nationally recognized codes, an extremely dangerous and untenable situation is being allowed to exist and expand if these projects continue to be approved, altered, and illegally occupied. We, as Volunteer Fire Chiefs are united in our concern for the current conditions under which we are required to operate as well as what lays ahead in the future. Please take our joint request seriously.”
Once again, St. Lawrence and his Board did not act. Read the list of threats and the nonresponse at “St. Lawrence Turns his Back on the Ramapo Fire Chiefs.”
Four years later, October 27, 2013—The Chairman of the Rockland County Illegal Housing Task Force, John Kryger wrote a scorching letter published in The Journal News. Responding to a fire at the disputed yeshiva at 95-97 Highview Road in Suffern, he pointed directly at the State and Ramapo Town officials. About the fire he said, “If this fire had occurred at 3 a.m. instead of 3 p.m., the fire departments would be pulling out bodies from that rental unit, never mind the school.”
Here’s part of Kryger’s letter:
“The school at 97 Highview was one of the properties we reported to state Codes Division believed not to comply with state fire and building codes. It was an illegal school in a former one-family home, cited by the Town of Ramapo but continued to operate as it sought tax-exempt status. Neighbors across the street said they counted almost 190 students being evacuated from the adjacent school, which is only supposed to have 70 or 75 students.
Ramapo is a ticking time bomb and this fire is just the tip of the iceberg. We’re getting nothing from the town but lip service from the supervisor and building officials in an election year. The only one who seems to care is the town’s head fire inspector. If the town is going to continue with its policy of granting permissions after the fact and ignoring violations, it’s time for a higher authority to step in. Asking for court fines of $5,000 is fine, if they are ever paid. That is the town’s responsibility to collect. Are they? Where is the proof?
Town of Ramapo is on notice. Clean up your act before being party to a mass fatal fire. Stop playing politics with people’s lives.”
Three years later, April 11, 2016—The Journal News reports “Ramapo fire official in probe.” The State Education Department reported to Supervisor St. Lawrence that his Fire Inspector Adam Peltz “either failed to see serious safety violations at several private schools or ignored the problems.” They wanted an investigation.
St. Lawrence publicly announced that Peltz’s work would be reviewed by the Town Legal Department, headed up by Michael Klein, currently under indictment himself on 22 federal charges. Also joining the internal investigation of Peltz would be Anthony Mallia, Chief Building Inspector for the Town of Ramapo. Five months later, almost to the day, the photo on the front page of the Journal showed Mallia being led away in handcuffs, arrested at his home by the District Attorney of Rockland charged with 100 felony counts. The investigation registered a Ramapo corruption trifecta: indicted Supervisor/indicted Lead Attorney/indicted Chief Building Inspector all chasing a Fire Inspector who was removed about a month after the letter from the State.
Three months later, Last week—Monitors from the New York Department of State have been approved for placement in Ramapo Town Hall and Spring Valley Village Hall. The Ramapo monitor began his work last week.
When The Journal News reporter asked Councilwoman Brendel Logan-Charles for a comment, she decided to test the public’s stomach for arrogant irony, “If the governor appoints a monitor, we do as the governor says and I would welcome state assistance. For a long time, we’ve needed additional help in that department.” Long time—yes, 62 years is a long time.
John Kryger, chair of the Rockland Illegal Housing Task Force was a little more candid. He told the reporter that he wants to see results. “With the state, I go by past performances, and its track record in Rockland is horrible, and, in my opinion, borders on criminal. I can only judge the state by results and nothing, absolutely nothing has changed in Ramapo and Spring Valley since the state came down more than a year ago. I do not call that progress.”