History of the Site
1982-83 Church of the Nazarene Application
The 19.3-acre site, located on the north side of Hillside Avenue in the Village of Airmont, was acquired around 1980 by the evangelical Church of the Nazarene. In 1982, an application for the construction of a 950-seat church was submitted to the Town of Ramapo (the Village of Airmont was not yet incorporated). Having "as-of-right" religious status regarding the zoning code, the application could be denied only if it was found that the proposed changes would have a direct and immediate adverse effect upon the health, safety, or welfare of the community.
Local residents formed the Hillside Avenue Preservation Association (HAPA), retained a lawyer, and commissioned a traffic study by Transportation Engineer John Sarna. Engineer Sarna’s subsequent report concluded that "if Hillside Avenue is to be used for other purposes than serving the immediate residential neighborhood, serious consideration should be given by both the Town of Ramapo and the Borough of Upper Saddle River to improve the condition and alignment of Hillside Avenue and removing the real and potential safety hazards." The necessary improvements were estimated to cost over $2 million, which would need to be shared by all parties; the Borough, the Town, and the Church. Also, road widening meant that every landowner would lose substantial property depth as well as all roadside shade trees, plantings, and other improvements.
The road issue, plus the serious issues regarding drainage, sewers, and water supply, provided ample reasons to deny the application, but the Ramapo Planning Board continued to vacillate. It was not until a lawsuit threat by HAPA and the Borough of Upper Saddle River that the Board voted unanimously to deny the application of the Church of the Nazarene on October 4, 1983.
2001-2002 Congregation Mischknois Lavier Yakov application
At some point after the Church of the Nazarene application was denied, the site was purchased by the Congregation Yakov, a Canadian Hasidic group. In June 2001, they submitted an application to the Village of Airmont proposing the establishment of a yeshiva, dormitory, and residences for married students and faculty. Modified plans were submitted in December 2001 and April 2002. The final plan specified a 29,511 sq. ft. yeshiva with 30 parking spaces; a 33,757 sq. ft. dormitory with 8 parking spaces; and 15 4-family townhouses with 60 parking spaces. Yeshiva enrollment would total 250, with 200 students residing in the dormitory and 50 married students and 10 teachers residing in the townhouses with their families of a total of 60 wives and an estimated 90 children. Combined residency for the site would total 460 minimum.
To alleviate the Hillside Avenue congestion, the plan included roadway widening from the current 18 ft. to a proposed 24 ft, plus the construction of a 4-ft. sidewalk on one side. These improvements would begin at the eastern Saddle River Road (NY) and end at the Yeshiva site, a distance of 1700 ft.
(NOTE: NY and NJ state laws require that road widening and related safety improvements extend the full length of the road, from Saddle River Road, NY to West Saddle River Road, NJ. The above improvement plan would therefore be unacceptable.)
In June 2002, Rockland County Department of Planning disapproved the Congregation Yakov application, and the Village of Airmont Planning Board followed suit shortly thereafter. Both the County and the Village had the same two reasons for disapproval. The first was that while Hillside Avenue’s RR50 zoning did permit the conditional use of general and religious schools, it did not permit the use of dormitories and multi-family housing. The second reason was that "this proposal is not compatible with the surrounding land uses. The community character of this section of Airmont will be jeopardized by the more intense land use proposed." Because the application was denied on zoning code noncompliance and community incompatibility, the specific health, safety, and welfare issues of the community, which were many, were not mentioned in the Planning Board’s final ruling.
In July 2002, Congregation Yakov filed a lawsuit in Federal Court in Manhattan, citing the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) as a basis for the demand that zoning accommodate its needs.
Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA)
In July 2000, RLUIPA passed both houses of Congress by "unanimous consent"—a voice vote with no requirement that any member be in attendance. Only religious groups and a few constitutional scholars were permitted to testify—absent were residential homeowners and local and state government officials and organizations. Because the act federalizes (and thus nullifies) state and local land use law, it is clearly unconstitutional. It is currently being challenged by a number of cities across the country, and will make its way to the Supreme Court, where it will likely be struck down. In the meantime, residential homeowners must act on their own behalf by bringing lawsuits against local governments and religious landowners, and by petitioning state and federal lawmakers. (click here for more information on the fairness and constitutionality of the law as well as an opinion on how it is being applied locally in the Town of Ramapo.)
RLUIPA, in part prohibits zoning that unreasonably limits religious assemblies, institutions or structures [emphasis supplied]. While this means that the local zoning code is no longer a protection, it does not override issues of health, safety, and welfare. In a similar case on Long Island in 2001, the Supreme Court in Nassau County, citing a Court of Appeals ruling, stated that a religious application including dormitory use "may be rejected on zoning grounds, only if it is found that the proposed change ‘will have a direct and immediate adverse effect upon the health, safety, and welfare of the community.’"
There is absolutely no doubt that the proposed yeshiva will have a direct and immediate adverse effect upon the health, safety, and welfare of the community on and surrounding Hillside Avenue, as the following information will amply demonstrate.
Water Supply. The Rockland County water supply is currently barely sufficient, and it cannot be supplemented from outside sources. the only possible water sources are north of the county, but these cannot be accessed because of the Appalachian Mountains to the north and west. Many experts have warned that Rockland’s reservoirs are too few and too small, and its aquifers are steadily being drawn down, even in periods of normal rainfall. (Over the past 100 years, Rockland has experienced, on average, one drought every three years.) The only solution, they maintain, is to restrict further development in the county. Politicians, however, are not listening. They talk about conservation by residents and possible methods of recycling waste water, but not one of them has said or done anything about restricting the rate of growth—which in the 1990s was 8% countywide and 16% in Ramapo—to a recommended rate of 2%, the overall rate of growth in the 1980s.
The unrestricted and pell-mell growth of Kiryas Joel, a Hasidic community in Orange County, has overwhelmed natural resources there, to the point that they are proposing the construction of a $29 million pipeline to tap into New York City’s Catskill Aqueduct. In explanation of their growth, the Kiryas Joel village administrator said, "We have family planning here. We plan to have families—of 16 to 18 kids."
Not only does Rockland County not have the ability to tap into outside water sources, but residents in southern Airmont, Upper Saddle River, and Saddle River rely solely on private wells sunk into the aquifer underlying the valley created by the two branches of the Saddle River. If that aquifer is drawn down to the point where wells go dry, residents will be forced to evacuate their homes until either public water is provided or the aquifer is recharged. Neither of these options, however, may even be available. United Water draws a substantial portion of its water from all county aquifers including the one underlying the Saddle River. If this aquifer becomes depleted, then probably all other aquifers in the county will be equally depleted, and United Water would be hard put to serve even its existing customers, never mind the new ones. In regard to an aquifer recharging, water conservation and normal rainfall would not be enough. Nothing short of a drastic reduction in the number of users would be required. And overpopulation, unfortunately, can only be reversed by a man-made or natural disaster (such as a total and permanent loss of water).
The yeshiva planners claim that they would hook up to the United Water system and thus not burden the local water supply. But this claim is ludicrous because the hook-up would be made at the pumping station just south of Hillside Avenue on the east branch of the Saddle River. Such pumping stations are located about every half mile along both branches of the Saddle River as well as all other waterways in Rockland County and northern New Jersey. Each station has a 10" to 16" well sunk to a depth of from 300 to 400 feet, much larger and deeper than any domestic well.
While our immediate concern is preventing a potentially disastrous drain on our water resources by the proposed yeshiva project, we should also demand that the threat to the county water supply by overdevelopment be investigated and acted on by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. It is important to note that New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection ensures that all communities have an adequate water supply by identifying and acting on all water supply needs and issues, from source to demand. New York, on the other hand, does not oversee water supply on a statewide basis—only environmental threats to it. (Isn’t overpopulation an environmental threat?) The local governments are left to figure out their water problems on their own. The situation is even worse in Rockland County, where the county government refuses to take action on out-of-control growth in the county.
Traffic congestion and safety. Much of the following information is from the traffic study performed in 1983 by Transportation Engineer John Sarna for the Church of the Nazarene application previously described.
Hillside Avenue is 0.9 miles long (0.6 miles in New York and 0.3 miles in New Jersey), running from Saddle River Road in New York to West Saddle River Road in New Jersey. On the New York end, the north side of the street is in the Village of Airmont, and the south side is in the Town of Ramapo. Its physical condition remains the same today as in 1983, the only exception being New York State’s reconstruction of the bridge over the east branch of the Saddle River. Traffic volume, predictably, is much greater today than it was in 1983, which will be documented in a new traffic study. Because there are only about 50 homes directly on or served by the street, it is apparent that most of the traffic is through traffic using Hillside Avenue as a shortcut.
Following is a description of the inadequacies on Hillside Avenue that were cited in the 1983 traffic study as needing correction if the road was to be used for purposes other than serving the immediate residential neighborhood. Because the study describes only the road’s inadequacies, I have provided information regarding the type and extent of reconstruction needed to correct the inadequacies, plus a description of its impact on Hillside Avenue properties.
Road width. The present width of the roadway varies from 18 to 20 feet, with a few spots as wide as 22 feet. There are no sidewalks and virtually no shoulders. Trees, bushes, utility poles, rocks, and stone walls intrude to the edge of the pavement.
The roadway and West Saddle River bridge would need to be widened to 26 feet, and a four-foot sidewalk would need to be provided for the large amount of pedestrian traffic to be expected in a Hasidic enterprise involving yeshiva students, faculty, and families, plus neighborhood families worshiping in the yeshiva’s synagogue. (But while the sidewalk would extend the full length of Hillside Avenue, there are no sidewalks on either the east or west Saddle River Roads. What would happen there? Would pedestrians just stream into the roadway?)
Roadway widening and sidewalk construction would increase the road width by 12 feet, which means that every landowner on Hillside Avenue would lose 6 feet of property depth as well as all roadside shade trees, plantings, and other improvements. Moreover, three residences are so close to the road that they would need to be remodeled, moved, or razed.
Sight distance restrictions. There are five sever sight distance restrictions along Hillside Avenue and the eastern Saddle River Road intersection which will require extensive reconstruction;
At Oratam Road, the roadway must be radically reconfigured to eliminate the S-curve so as to improve vehicular stability and vertical and lateral sight distance. Substantial property condemnation will be required.
At Plymouth Drive, the roadway crest to the east of the intersection must be lowered at least 5 feet to improve vertical sight distance.
In the vicinity of 40 Hillside Avenue, NY, the roadway crest must be lowered at least 8 feet to improve vertical sight distance.
In the vicinity of 26 Hillside Avenue, NY, the roadway crest must be lowered at least 3 feet to improve vertical sight distance.
At the intersection with Saddle River Road, NY, the upgrade approach on Hillside Avenue and the restricted lateral sight distances to both the north and south create a very hazardous situation for vehicles exiting Hillside Avenue. Correction would include improving the lateral alignment of Saddle River Road and raising the roadway height of Hillside Avenue at the intersection to lessen the incline.
Total improvements to Hillside Avenue were estimated to cost over $2 million in 1983. Those same improvements today would cost at least $20 million.
Sewers and drainage. While information on these matters will need to be obtained from the village, town, and /or county officials, I can at least say that Sewer Pumping Station “G” on Saddle River Road is currently operating at above its rated capacity.
The Need for resident involvement. We can expect that the municipalities of Airmont, Upper Saddle River, and perhaps even Saddle River will be involved in the appeals process, but we cannot assume that their interests and objectives will be the same as those of residents. As recent events in the Town of Ramapo have demonstrated, RLUIPA, political interests, and threats of personal lawsuits can turn local officials into adversaries of their own constituents.
For this reason, I think it behooves us to form a resident’s association similar to the Hillside Avenue Preservation Association (HAPA) that was formed in the 1980s.
David L. Gates