Editorial from Robert Rhodes
Shortly after Christopher St. Lawrence became Ramapo Supervisor, he announced that he wanted to pass a new, comprehensive master plan for land use in Ramapo. His initial plan included several “Planned Residential Development” districts. It seemed obvious to me that these PRD districts could not possibly fulfill the basic NYS requirements of a master plan.
Under New York law, the purpose of a master plan is to first define the maximum growth envisaged under the plan and then justify that growth by demonstrating how the potential problems created by that growth would be ameliorated. But this proposed plan did not define what could be built in a PRD district, and therefore it would be impossible to define how that growth would be ameliorated.
The mayors of eight villages were not happy, and they arranged a meeting to be held in Sloatsburg with St. Lawrence. The mayors waited patiently for over an hour and St. Lawrence never showed up! He later claimed that the meeting had never been confirmed which was a lie. Nevertheless, the proposal for the PRDs was dropped from the plan.
The new plan that was passed 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 more and more relatively 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 equally compliant town board.
While our zoning was the victim of a death by a thousand cuts Michael Specht, Ramapo’s town attorney to the ZBA, provided the legal boiler plate for hundreds of illegal variances that created the terrible traffic problems in Monsey.
So why the recent discussion of a new comprehensive plan? The answer seems obvious. As long as the expansion of high-density housing was restricted primarily to Monsey and Spring Valley the objections of small groups of residents could be ignored. (The one obvious exception was ROSA’s still successful challenge to high-density housing on Patrick Farm.) But as the growth of our Hasidic community has accelerated, it has finally led to a wide-spread and organized opposition—the CUPON movement—and new lawsuits against Ramapo.
Supervisor Specht recently announced the need for new strategic planning seemingly without prior consultation with interested parties. But this consultation had taken place. Specht and Mona Montal have been leaving their offices for extended periods of time on a regular basis. It appears they could have been carefully planning our future in secret while excluding most of our community.
Specht and Montal have now launched the public relations phase of their plan for a huge increase in high-density development protected by a new master plan. We will have extensive public “consultations” that will lead to “compromises” that can later be presented in court to demonstrate that our new master plan is based on an open democratic process that has considered the needs of our entire community. This is an elaborate political performance designed to defend Ramapo’s corrupt leadership against future lawsuits.
Most of Ramapo’s roads are old and narrow and were not created for heavy traffic. Route 59 has become a traffic-choked disaster where it passes east to west through Ramapo. Our other four collector roads (306, 202, College/Wilder and 45) are not much better. Our sanitary sewers were not built to meet the demands of high-density housing, and we have inadequate storm sewers. The result is virtual gridlock during commuting hours, and the danger of flash flooding that does not exist almost anywhere else in Rockland.
We have very high taxes. And, thanks to our incompetent and corrupt administration, unknown debt obligations have made it impossible for Ramapo to borrow money. (We will know more about our finances when we finally get our long overdue audited financials for 2015, 2016, 2017, and now 2018 sometime in the indefinite future!)
These problems are obvious to most of our community, but Specht will trot out his experts to demonstrate that things are not so bad. Opponents of his plans will need to hire their own experts at great cost to fight against Ramapo’s new master plan and town lawyers financed by tax dollars. Do they have the resources to do it?
Why are Specht and Montal willing to stir up a hornet’s nest in Ramapo? The immediate problem as noted above is a legal one. They can’t ignore recent legal challenges to their sellout. But we also have to look at our demographic situation. There is an old saying “demography is destiny.” We now have a Hasidic population of perhaps 40,000 residents, and it is growing rapidly.
Housing is the Achilles heel of this community. Young people are supposed to marry at a very young age and have large families. There is real anger among young people whose need for housing is desperate. The legitimacy of their rabbis depends upon the satisfaction of this need. Then, of course, we have the developers who are encouraging more young families to move into Ramapo. Housing costs are high here but are higher still in Brooklyn.
We now live in a community where more than two-thirds of our residents are confronting a remarkably well-organized minority that elected Michael Specht and his complicit board. This community has no choice but to fight for more housing in a town that does not have the infrastructure or tax base to support it.
Growth will be limited by two problems that cannot be ignored indefinitely. Our rapid population growth will test the ability of our residents to tolerate ever more traffic, flooding, fire emergencies and sewer overflows. Then there will be the fiscal limits. Ramapo will not be able to raise the huge sums of money necessary to build an infrastructure commensurate with our status as an accidental city.
Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio have quietly worked with the developers and leaders of the Hasidic community to further their mutual interests. How long will this political alliance remain unchallenged?
Robert I Rhodes, Ph.D., Chairman, Preserve Ramapo