In Ramapo, illegal schools, businesses are allowed to continue operating

Ramapo Supervisor Michael Specht Photo/Journal News

“Sky Meadow Road homeowners live with school buses coming and going daily in their single-family home neighborhood.

Two yeshivas began operating without permits and land-use approvals on the road in the past two years. Both have received violations from the town. Neither have been forced to close, drawing the ire of some homeowners.

But the situation falls in line with Ramapo’s long-held policy of dealing with organizations and owners operating illegally, specifically schools.

Property owners in the town found in violation of zoning codes, or who have not obtained proper permits for use of the property – be it something as small as having an unauthorized deck or as large as an unapproved business – can continue operating while in violation by filing site plans with town land-use boards and seeking permits.

The good-faith policy is not duplicated in other towns in Rockland, and unlike most policies followed around the region.

While a town cannot unilaterally shut down a school, house of worship, or business operating without permission or in violation of zoning rules, municipalities can seek state court orders to shut down such operations until all legal concerns are resolved, and many do not allow an organization that continues operating in violation from going in front of boards to obtain legal permits.

Ramapo officials have said the town’s goal is to seek compliance with the zoning and building and fire codes and to ensure the safety of residents and first-responders. They have also argued state court decisions prohibit banning those in violation from appearing before land-use boards.

Ramapo remains unique in Rockland with its growing Orthodox and Hasidic Jewish populations and families who need housing, schools, and houses of worship. In recent years those needs have led to violations of zoning, safety, and health codes larger in scope than other Rockland municipalities have often faced. However, the town’s policy has applied across denominations, including businesses with no direct ties to religion.

Often, building violations, including separate rooms added to existing houses, overcrowded living, or unsafe conditions, among others, are only discovered by fire and building inspectors during or after a fire or other emergency. And, some say subsequent fines, in most instances, lack enough punch to serve as a deterrent.

Critics have long argued the fines don’t serve as an adequate deterrent and enforcement is sporadic. They claim the policy has led some property owners to take the attitude that “it is easier to ask forgiveness than ask for permission,” and decline to cure violations until they are caught.

“They don’t even ask for forgiveness,” Lee Ross, a 37-year neighbor of the Sky Meadow properties, said of some town developers. “They simply do not care about the effects on the water quality, traffic, fire safety, or sanitation.  They do not care about the codes or zoning laws. They do not care about the residents who live here.”

A representative for the Sky Meadow yeshivas, Stuart Fine of Eaton Springs LLC, in Chestnut Ridge, said school administrators are working to get approvals. He said he’s not familiar with the violations.

“Everything is being worked out with the town officials on getting proper approvals,’ Fine said. “The approval process started from day one.”

What’s happening on Sky Meadow Road?

Shortly after a house at 36 Sky Meadow Road was sold in September 2020, a private boys’ school, Yeshiva Shaarei Arazim, with an estimated 80 to 90 students, began operating, said Lise Crapella, who has lived at 29 Sky Meadow Road for 46 years.

No advance notice came as buses, vans, and cars drove up and down the long narrow uphill driveway, dropping off and taking home students, she said. The school opened without Ramapo permits, board approvals of site plans or zone changes, or inspections.

Another boys’ school, Yeshiva Birchas Hatorah, with an estimated 30 to 40 students, later began teaching students in a house also zoned for single-family at combined properties at 40 and 42 Sky Meadow Road, properties totaling 2.76 acres.

In December 2021, Crapella said, trees and bushes were clear-cut along her property line with 42 Sky Meadow Road. “So we started to investigate what was going on next door,” she said. “Shortly thereafter we noticed cars and vans bringing boys to the 42 property.

“I am not a lawyer or expert in zoning laws,” she said, “but this is wrong and a reflection of what is happening in Rockland County.”

Ramapo Building Department Inspector Peter Muzzi issued violation summons in February. Both structures have certificates of occupancy as single-family houses, but no permit to operate as schools. Justice Court is handling the cases.

The Ramapo Building Department said violations included:

  • operating a boys’ school without an approved site plan;
  • no certificate of occupancy and changing the use to a boys’ school from a single-family house;
  • no building permit
  • violating a stop-work order;
  • land disturbance without a permit.

Crapella claimed despite the issuance of violations Ramapo “is ignoring and/or condoning the unlawful use of the properties with no respect for the residents who pay taxes and are held to the zoning laws of the county.” 

Larry Frenkel, who lives at 38 Sky Meadow Road, wrote the Planning Board that the school at 40-42 Sky Meadow would adversely affect the neighborhood. He raised concerns about traffic, speeding cars and noise from the school.

“I don’t think that one can reasonably argue that the addition of applicant to the neighborhood with an initial plan for 85 students, 18 employees plus bussing, daily food and other deliveries, maintenance and others that would typically visit a school of 103 people will not adversely affect the character and quality of the community or neighborhood,” Frenkel wrote in a Dec. 29 letter to the board.

Ross called the town’s handling of the Sky Meadow schools “a travesty.” He said the schools disrupted a quiet residential neighborhood in the foothills of the Ramapo Mountains. He said the Mahwah River is being ruined.

“There’s no enforcement and no sanctions brought to bear by the town of Ramapo. These schools should be closed and enjoined from further operations,” he said.

Crapella and other neighbors have filed complaints with the state Department of Building and Codes about the lack of enforcement and the schools, and have written to Specht asking for action.

Ramapo policy questioned

Gordon Wren Jr., a Hillcrest firefighter for decades, a former Ramapo building inspector, and Rockland fire coordinator, said Ramapo has long allowed schools to operate in violation. He said developers and school operators take the proposition they can make money without heavy expenses − hiring engineers, architects, and lawyers to get legal approvals − until they get caught. He said the political influence of the Orthodox Jewish bloc vote is formidable in Ramapo.

He argued allowing schools along Sky Meadow Road, a semi-rural area with narrow roads, creates challenges for firefighters responding to emergencies and getting trucks into the area.

“Ramapo plays a deadly serious game by allowing these schools, permitting dormitories and trailer schools to operate without inspections or going before land-use boards to seek approvals, and allow neighbors to voice concerns at public hearings,” Wren said. “This has been a consistent policy for decades.”

How other Rockland towns operate

Ramapo’s policy allowing corrective action while operating is not duplicated elsewhere in Rockland, though the other four towns like Ramapo work with cooperative property owners to cure violations.

In Clarkstown, for example, property owners with building, fire and zoning code violations or who are tax delinquent are prohibited from going before the town land-use boards, Supervisor George Hoehmann said. He added the Town Board adopted stringent laws when he became supervisor seven years ago.

The main objective is to eliminate fire and safety hazards and prevent traffic, noise and overcrowding that could result from illegal housing.

He said the town isn’t afraid to come down hard, as violations have increased yearly since he became town supervisor. He noted one property owner was fined $40,000 for constructing a warehouse addition without permits, ignoring stop-work orders, clear-cutting trees, and ordered to plant 300 trees.

Recently, a West Nyack property owner on West Hook Mountain agreed to replant 150 trees costing more than $130,000, paying the town $3,900 for a land-tree survey, and bearing the costs of storm drainage plan and restoring disturbed soil and land encroaching on parkland to satisfy town violations.  

“We will work as hard as we can to get anyone in compliance,” Hoehmann said. “If someone comes into Clarkstown and ignores our regulations, say opens a convenience store in a residential neighborhood, we will take them to the Supreme Court if we have to. They are going to get fines and lose a lot of money.”

Clarkstown won dismissal of a federal lawsuit by a private school claiming the town discriminated by conspiring with grassroots groups to block the institution from buying a former Nanuet church property for a Jewish school. The town purchased the property, leading to the lawsuit.

Wren said no town or village is perfect when it comes to enforcement, but some take stricter approaches than Ramapo. He said Clarkstown “has made it clear that if people operate without permits they would face heavy fines, sometimes in the tens of thousands of dollars. Without that financial penalty as a deterrent, enforcement is weakened.”

Orangetown Supervisor Teresa Kenny said the town looks for compliance but doesn’t shy away from going to court.”

Read the complete Journal News coverage of the story here.