October 23, 2005 The New York TimesOur Towns
In a Town Divided, a Wispy Boundary Between Land Use and Religion
IT is a few short miles and a universe or two from the teeming Hasidic village of New Square to Patrick Farm, 200 bucolic acres of rolling hills, streams, ponds and wetlands that feed the Mahwah River in the town of Ramapo in Rockland County.
Once the farm was known as Hasty Hill and was owned by the playwright and screenwriter John Patrick, who won a Pulitzer Prize for "The Teahouse of the August Moon" in 1954. Now, nearby residents look at Patrick Farm and envision a clone of New Square. It's a common concern in a town, diverse and divided, that may have the most permanently contentious politics in suburban New York.
The fight over the fate of Patrick Farm, the attempts to change the town government or oust its current officials altogether, and the nasty little fuss over the educational credentials of the town supervisor (he claims a Harvard degree that the university says it has no record of) are not about religion, people are quick to say. On some levels, they're right.
"This is a little bit of Brigadoon near New York City, and now it's a snake pit - I'm embarrassed to live here," said Marlaine Paone, a leader of an effort to form a village called Ladentown to better control growth in Ramapo, a town of 120,000 people. "It's about development, about the environment, it's not about religion. I'm Jewish. Two-thirds of my organization is Jewish."
But it's almost impossible to separate religion from land-use issues when it comes to the culture of places like New Square and Monsey, dense warrens of rigorously Orthodox Jews in the midst of the green sprawl of Rockland. Even the legal issues - compounded by a federal law, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, meant to protect religious groups - are one part land use, one part religious use.
Whatever the case, this is a place that feels like suburban New York's answer to the Middle East, people of different cultures with different attachments to the land who seem almost permanently at odds.
"It's not a happy town," said Herman Friedman, one of three candidates running on the independent Preserve Ramapo slate, which wants to replace the current town government. "It's very divided. The previous supervisor had the motto 'A more harmonious Ramapo.' You don't hear that anymore."
In truth, it's hardly all negative. Ramapo is a strikingly diverse place to Hispanics, Indians, Pakistanis, Vietnamese, Haitians and assorted Jewish communities, who for the most part coexist with relative harmony.
But what works in daily life becomes complex in politics, where many people are convinced that rigorously Orthodox Jews and particularly the politically connected developers who cater to them have disproportionate influence in government. Since residents of places like New Square tend to vote as a bloc, they have enormous political clout.
So local board meetings can be like weddings, with people from New Square and other Jewish communities on one side of the room, and other residents on the other. "You'll be at a town meeting, and they'll say, 'We delivered 4,000 votes to you, and now you owe us,' " Ms. Paone said.
The community has been divided for years, but many people were angry when a new zoning plan allowed homes to be built on one acre instead of two in Patrick Farm. The property is being developed by Yechiel Lebovits and Abraham Moskovits, two aggressive and politically savvy businessmen. Then the town included Patrick Farm as one of four adult student housing districts, which could have dormitories, apartments, religious schools and density that residents say is inappropriate for the area.
"You say Patrick Farm, and I want to throw up, I literally get nauseous," said Holly Castle, who lives about a mile or so away. "You wonder, how can someone drop their own little planet on us?"
Town officials say developers have presented no plans for any development on Patrick Farm, so it is impossible to tell what will be built there. And they say many critics simply want to go back to an earlier, more homogeneous Ramapo.
"There's a segment of the population that doesn't want any growth," said Brian Brophy, Ramapo's director of building, planning and zoning. "They don't want change, and they're not enamored of the people who are moving here. But you can either plan for change or have someone sue and force you to do it." As for a "bloc vote," they say, ethnic groups have done it in the past. Why can't they do it now?
But critics say the environmental and development issues are real and not limited to Ramapo and Rockland. They say the problems are compounded by weak regional planning, lagging spending on infrastructure like water and sewer lines, the federal legislation favorable to religious groups and the exponential growth of places like New Square where large families are the rule.
"You can't force high-density housing down people's throats," said Mr. Friedman, one of the Preserve Ramapo candidates and himself an Orthodox Jew. "There's a need for multifamily housing. But it should be in an area where it's needed most, where the roads and infrastructure can support it."