Nearly four months after Christopher St. Lawrence got booted as supervisor for his securities fraud convictions, Town Board members, once mostly publicly compliant to St. Lawrence’s wishes, are changing policies and hoping to remold the town’s negative image.
Skeptics remain, however, that the sincerity for change is short-term for the upcoming elections, even as board members offer zoning and planning reforms, such as prohibiting zone changes until a master plan review is completed; a ban on using temporary trailers for classrooms; and moratoriums on construction in already heavily dense residential neighborhoods.
The board also has called for abolishing the Ramapo Local Development Corp., the financial arm for the construction of the much-debated baseball stadium and housing on Elm Street where all religious families live. The RLDC also became the core of the federal case that St, Lawrence manipulated budgetary figures and provided bond investors with a false positive view of the town finances in documents seeking investments to get a lower interest rate.
The reforms are billed as attempts to curb excessive and irresponsible development.
During St. Lawrence’s 16-year tenure, the concept of developers and schools starting work and later seeking the town’s OK led to a proliferation of temporary approvals for schools in residential homes and home/apartment construction in violation of town zoning.
Zoning, fire and safety violations, when issued, rarely resulted in sufficient fines or penalties that discouraged non-compliance, becoming just part of the cost of doing business for builders and property owners.
As a result of the lack of adequate zoning and safety enforcement and the bevy of temporary permits without town official approvals during the St. Lawrence era, the state assigned a monitor to oversee zoning and fire code enforcement by the RamapoBuilding Department.
The department’s former chief inspector, Anthony Mallia, pleaded guilty to felony crimes and faces a non-jail sentence Oct. 31 for undercharging contractors for permits and shortchanging taxpayers by $150,000 in the process. A former fire inspector under Mallia’s watch had been demoted and suspended for falsely claiming he inspected several school buildings.
Many residents have noticed, as they have protested illegal building, substandard housing, and the generous variances and leeway from the zoning code given to builders.
Bill Weber, Republican running for Ramapo town supervisor.
The opposition supervisor candidate, William Weber, said [the Ramapo encumbent candidates] Specht, Ullman and Wanounou were all talk about reform. He sees the town going back to catering to developers, taking a soft stand on slum housing and zoning enforcement after the election and moratoriums expire if they are elected.
Weber, a Republican, is running with Town Board hopefuls, Shani Bechhofer, an independent, and Grant Valentine, a Democrat, under the slogan “New Direction for Ramapo.”
“Yitzy Ullman has shown time and again that he and his council are unwilling to reform Town Hall,” Weber said.
Weber said if the Town Hall leaders were sincere, they’d fire Town Attorney Michael Klein and Receiver of Taxes Nathan Oberman, a top party official.
He noted Klein and Oberman, with St. Lawrence and former RLDC executive director Aaron Troodler, are named in a civil action brought by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission for alleged fraudulent activities involving documents seeking investors to buy bonds for town projects.
Weber noted their actions with St. Lawrence have cost taxpayers upwards of $1 million in SEC legal defense fees.
Weber, an accountant with Turco Golf, a contractor on the baseball stadium construction, said the town has not “filed the 2015 and 2016 audited financial statements within a few weeks, as we were led to believe back in May … ”
“Time and again we are told one thing, and then they do another.” Weber said. “There is no reason to believe” that the board is having “a sudden epiphany two months before election day.”
Ullman said the auditors are still working on the town books. He offered a new target date of November.
Both Ullman and Specht said they would not support zone changes until the comprehensive review of the master plan. Weber and his running mates also oppose zone changes.
And that includes any zone change for the new owners of the Minisceongo Golf Club,where the potential exists for major housing development.
Years back, the Town Board approved a zone change to allow the Lebowits family to build close to 500 homes on Patrick Farm after the family bought the land. The Patrick Farm project remains stalled by lawsuits filed by local activists.
Businessman Peter Katz, who has taken the town to court over approval of a school in his neighborhood, said pressure from residents forced some of the changes, but the town leadership and membership on the planning and zoning boards remain the same.
He blamed St. Lawrence and the town leaders for giving in to developers and the administration holdovers “still carry old political baggage and have extreme big developer allegiances.”
He said “fed-up residents have demonstrated their ability and desire to do whatever is necessary to protect their rights and if the moratorium does not become a permanent law, I’m certain the matter will ultimately be resolved in court.”
Deborah Munitz, an activist who’s followed the town’s zoning decisions and supports the Weber team, said she views the recent board moves “mostly as pre-election white washing” of policies the board helped create.
“How can we trust those that have fully participated in the problematic Town of Ramapo government to suddenly provide the leadership that is sorely missing?” she said. “Solutions won’t be found in the shadows of business as usual. We need fresh eyes and fresh energy.”
There’s much more in the complete Journal News article, which you can read here.