Airmont proposed development worries USR residents

By Helen B. Tothman

First appeared in The Home and Store News December 7, 2005

Problems with traffic, sewers and water tables are just some of the concerns of residents of Hillside Avenue in Airmont and Upper Saddle River.

Their worries are arising from an application by the Congregation Mischknois Lavier Yakov, Inc. to construct a mixed use project on Hillside Avenue which would include a private school, dormitory and townhouses.

Hillside Avenue is zoned for single-family homes on one and a quarter acres. After what many believed to be a very weak effort by the town of Airmont to defend its zoning laws, a settlement was reached with the congregation which allows them to submit a modified version of their original plan to the Airmont Planning Board in which the development could not be denied due to zoning laws.

As more and more people become aware of the potential impact a development of this size would have on the narrow country road and the surrounding area, various groups have organized and are challenging the plan in courts.

The Hillside Avenue Preservation Association (HAPA) has initiated a lawsuit based on the Sunshine Laws in which it contends that the town reached the agreement with the congregation behind closed doors.

According to Upper Saddle River resident Karen Miller, this is an illegal agreement and gave no opportunity for discussion or input from the public.

Another suit is being brought by the Borough of Upper Saddle River against the Airmont Planning Board. It contends that an April 2005 meeting in the Village Hall was held in a room not large enough to accommodate everyone who wanted to attend thus violating the New York Open Meetings Law.

"Just as the meeting was being closed, amid much protest, the Planning Board designated themselves as the lead agency overseeing the application of the congregation," stated Donna Muro, president of HAPA.

Upper Saddle River is requesting that the actions taken by the board at that meeting be voided on the grounds the meeting was improperly conducted.

Legal challenges have come on both sides of the issue. In June, the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) sued the Village of Airmont alleging that its zoning laws violate the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) and the Fair Housing Act (FHA). RLUIPA deals with the religious rights of persons in prisons and governs land usage in regard to how people use it for religious reasons. The village has filed a motion to dismiss this case based in part on the contention that RLUIPA is unconstitutional.

While legal battles are being waged, the residents in the surrounding area worry about the scope of the development and its impact on their health, safety, welfare and even their way of life. "The plan for the development is being constantly changed," Miller contends.

She is concerned with the findings of a study by a licensed New Jersey architect in which the maximum capacity for the proposed buildings exceed what is allowed for in the settlement which was reached between the congregation and the town.

The Yeshiva for married students would have a maximum capacity of 628 students while the settlement allows for 30 married students.

The Yeshiva for unmarried students can accommodate 1,300 as opposed to the 170 in the settlement. The dormitories can hold 490, and 170 are allowed. Five hundred forty people can be housed in the town homes and only 30 student families are approved in the settlement.

"These numbers suggest to me that these buildings were not designed for a couple of hundred students, but the 1,100 plus they can accommodate. Why go to the expense of building a facility five times greater than it has to be if your plans do not entail expansion," asks Miller.

According to Muro, about 125 people presently reside on Hillside Avenue. "Can you imagine the impact of that many more people living on Hillside Avenue? The traffic, the sewers, the water and the whole infrastructure would be impacted. How much can our street support?" she asked.

Traffic an issue

The traffic flow on the narrow road which has no sidewalks could be further impacted especially if a plan under discussion by the Borough of Upper Saddle River to close the road where it intersects with West Saddle River Road thus making it a dead end, is adopted.

Part of the reason Peter Strasser and his family moved to Hillside Avenue some 23 years ago was because of what he describes as "the canyon of trees" you see as you drive up the road.

"If the road is widened and sidewalks are put in, we will lose a substantial number of trees," stated Strasser.

Sewage overload?

An issue of even greater concern to Strasser, who is treasurer of HAPA, is the sewage problem that already exists in the area, which will only be worsened by further development.

"I, myself, have witnessed several sewage spills in the area," stated Strasser, whose eight-acre property backs up to the Upper Saddle River Swim and Tennis Club.

"The Saddle River runs through my land and I have seen sewage flowing into the river and that water runs down to Upper Saddle River and Saddle River," said Strasser.

The last spill he observed was just last week after a heavy rain, when a manhole cover overflowed directly on to the USR Swim and Tennis Club parking lot.

"I called Sewer District No.1 which is in charge of the area and reported the spill. They came out and spread lime on it," explained Strasser.

Strasser states that from April of this year going back over five years, 800,000 gallons of sewage has overflowed, and since April, overflows have been increasing in frequency. [The spills were in Rockland Sewer District One's region. Click here and scroll to the bottom of the page for a detailed database listing these events.]

"Strangely enough, the Rockland County Department of Soil and Water designates the Saddle River as a class A stream within 100 feet of the New Jersey state line and thatís exactly where the spills are occurring," Strasser maintains.

The frequent overflow of sewage is due to an undersized sewer system according to a long-time Hillside Avenue resident.

"What weíre concerned about is why anyone would allow a large population to be added to Hillside Avenue? No matter what the development might consist of, itís just too big. Itís plain common sense," added Strasser.

Question water supply

But an equally troubling issue is that of water supply on the peaceful, tree-lined street. The same aquifer feeds wells in Upper Saddle River and Saddle River along with wells on Hillside Avenue.

"A deep well would have to be dug to provide a development of that size with water. That could drain all the other wells around, and severely lower the aquifer," claims Muro.

She further indicated that United Water is concerned over the water problem and has indicated that it cannot provide Water to Hillside Avenue for several years. According to Muro, all the wells in Rockland, Upper Saddle River, and Saddle River rely on rain to keep functioning.

Cite fire threat

Fire is also a potential threat on Hillside Avenue, which has no fire hydrants. With no source of water to fight fire, and heavily wooded multi-acre properties, Muro is concerned that a fire once started, could spread over much of the street. She says there would be an increased threat of fire with candles and stoves being left on for long periods of time on holy days.

But drinking water remains a huge issue for Strasser who says his well is not very deep. "Everyone here has a well. Some are deeper than others. A shallow well is more likely to become contaminated especially in light of all the sewer overflows. My concern is fresh clean drinking water."

He points to a five-year study of the water table levels which has only been in progress for one year.

"We have not been able to get any answers from this study and most likely will have no indication of the severity of the problem before another four years," Strasser says.

Muro says she is of the opinion that making people aware, getting them organized and getting folks out to vote is vital to the progress of Democracy.

"Now the majority of people on the village board support us. People came out to vote and these candidates got 78 percent of the vote."

Muro also recommends residents of the affected areas log on to www.preserveramapo.org to get news on these issues.