“Ramapo officials and state code watchdogs came under criticism Thursday for lackluster enforcement and bending to special interests during a state Senate hearing in Newburgh.
Gordon Wren Jr., the county’s retired emergency services coordinator who chairs the grassroots watchdog group CUPON Rockland, led the critique along with state Assemblyman Kenneth Zebrowski, and, to a lesser degree, Rockland Deputy Health Commissioner Catherine Johnson Southern, who oversees enforcement of the county sanitary code under the Rockland Codes Initiative.
The hearing was held in Newburgh Armory before the Senate’s Investigations and Government Operations Committee, which is chaired by Democrat James Skoufis, whose district includes Stony Point and Haverstraw.
The hearing received testimony on code and zoning enforcement, focusing on Ramapo, Newburgh and Mount Vernon, as well as on improvements across the state, such as in Albany and Syracuse.
Ramapo remains unique in Rockland with a growing Orthodox and Hasidic Jewish population with families who need housing, schools and houses of worship. Those needs have led to violations of zoning, safety and health codes for decades.
Wren described slum conditions and illegal housing and schools across Ramapo, with some buildings remaining open for years without certificates of occupancy, land-use approvals and inspections.
He noted that the Rockland Illegal Housing Task Force receives many more complaints about Ramapo, while other towns take a firmer hand on inspections and fines from judges.
“The conditions we have people living in is deplorable in many cases,” said Wren, a volunteer Hillcrest firefighter for five decades. “We’ve watched as cases have lingered in the courts, with no major fines or trials.”
He noted Ramapo inspectors and a state monitor allowed a school with a modular trailer classroom to operate on a construction site on Summit Park Road in New Hempstead.
Wren noted the school used a fire hydrant that didn’t work, provided water provided by a hose from a house next door before bringing in a water tank, and used an extension cord for electricity from the house.
State enforcers criticized
Wren and Zebrowski said state code enforcers have been less than cooperative and the state monitors assigned to oversee the Ramapo and Spring Valley building departments didn’t communicate with local firefighters. They both felt the state prematurely removed the monitor for Ramapo after deciding the town met the minimum standards.
Zebrowski, who is running for Rockland district attorney, criticized the fines levied in Ramapo of $250 or $500, saying those were the cost of doing business and didn’t discourage illegal housing. Wren noted judges in other towns have hit violators with thousands of dollars in fines.
Johnson-Southern said complaints about violations in Ramapo were triple those in other towns. She said the Board of Health has fined violators of the sanitary codes thousands of dollars, but remained focused on compliance.
“Ramapo is a struggle,” she said. “The health department reaches out to Ramapo as much as we reach out to other municipalities. There are issues in Ramapo that make it difficult for them to have a working relationship with us.”
When Skoufis said she was “controlling her words” about Ramapo, she agreed.
“In Ramapo there doesn’t seem like the same type of enforcement as in other towns,” Johnson-Southern said.”
To read the complete Journal News story click here.
Other stories from The Journal News regarding Ramapo building:
STATE REPORT on Ramapo monitor