Adult Student Housing—An Extortion Paid

They’re often mentioned in the same sentence, but they are very different. RLUIPA is a Federal Law that takes away local control over development and zoning while the Adult Student Housing (ASH) law was created here in the Town of Ramapo by Supervisor St. Lawrence and his board. It’s not the law in the villages, there’s no state ASH, and it has nothing to do with federal law. It’s solely the brainchild of our town board and its leader Christopher St. Lawrence.

How it Happened

When the Town of Ramapo was threatened by religious developers with a federal RLUIPA lawsuit, rather than stand up and defend its right to control growth in Ramapo, the board and St. Lawrence decided to give in without a fight. In June 2004, St. Lawrence offered several developers four sites where they could develop religious centers with high-density Adult Student Housing. The formula used to maintain the guise of a religious center for the students and their families was a 90%--10% proportion. This formula required only 10% of the space built to be dedicated to religious activities and the remaining 90% would be for residences. The 10% could be "study centers," which in other apartment complexes might be called libraries or lounges.

When Airmont was threatened with an RLUIPA lawsuit from a Canadian congregation that wanted to build a 13-building complex on Hillside Avenue that would house 1,300 residents, the Village decided to fight it in court. The Town of Ramapo, which has much more money to fight this kind of threat, refused to take on the same battle. And it’s not that the Town avoids all litigation. St. Lawrence did not hesitate to head to court against the thousands of residents who presented a petition that would allow the question of a Ward System to be on the ballot. He is still in court fighting the four villages who sued Ramapo over the Town’s Master Plan that will urbanize Monsey and threaten infrastructure throughout Ramapo. And then there’s his legal fight against the village application of the residents in Ladentown. You get the idea. It’s not clear if the developers named a price, but with the Adult Student Housing law, St. Lawrence certainly came through for them.

The Locations of the Four Sites

The photo below is one of the Adult Student Housing sites. It’s on Grandview Avenue off 306 on the site of the old Nike Base. It’s a small apartment city that has been dropped into the middle of a neighborhood of single family homes. Take some time one day to drive by and take a look for yourself. There are at least three more of these coming as promised by Christopher St. Lawrence, Ed Friedman, Frances Hunter, David Stein, and Harry Reiss (board members).

The four ASH sites in Ramapo include the Grandview Avenue site, the Patrick Farm property (story here), Highview Road west of College Road, and Spruce Road. All are designated high-density religious enclaves permitting 16 units per acre with "Fifty percent of the dwelling units shall be either one or two bedroom units; the remaining fifty percent of the dwelling units may be three or four bedroom units." To get an idea of how drastic a change this will be, consider The Patrick Farm neighborhood. Today its zoning permits 1 one-family home for every 2 acres. Ramapo's Adult Student Housing giveaway will place 32 families on that same space.

Finally, there’s some confusion about another site mentioned in the text of the Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement of the Master Plan (Sept. 2004). On pages 16-17 there’s the following description: "Four adult student housing sites were identified as possible developments: each is limited in size to a maximum of 12 acres; two of the four are only 4.7 and 4.8 acres; one in Patrick Farm will be 12; the other site on Hillside Avenue is 11.7 acres."

Why it Happened

Because the Town of Ramapo has shown itself to be aggressively litigious when it wants to be, there’s no obvious reason for its dramatic fold in the face of the lawsuit threat.

During the course of one of the hearings about the matter, Ed Friedman, a member of St. Lawrence's board, got up and complained to the public, "They’re going to sue us. Is there anyone out there who’s willing to pay for my legal fees when this happens?" You would think that he would have also resigned at that time, especially after he had just announced what the price was for his vote (all you had to do, apparently, was to threaten to sue him personally and you didn’t have to worry about his opposition). What made his comments a little disingenuous was that he didn’t explain that as a town official who was acting in his official capacity he would be represented in court by counsel paid by Ramapo's liability insurance company.  Nor did he explain that if Ramapo were to lose its RLUIPA lawsuit, the losses would be covered under that same policy. And for a final remarkable coincidence, it turns out that Ramapo buys its insurance through an agency owned by a close relative of its most powerful political sponsors.

No, it wasn’t fear of a protracted lawsuit. It was something else.

A closer look at a few connections and past history offers a possible explanation why the Adult Student Housing provision got written in Ramapo.

A couple of the developers who hold the affected sites are strong political supporters of Christopher St. Lawrence. And then there’s the elephant in the room that’s a constant presence that seldom gets discussed. St. Lawrence and his board members count on the support of the bloc vote and they have to earn that support. Sometimes this can be accomplished with public stands taken by the Supervisor. As an example, in July 2005, Airmont had begun its legal struggle against the RLUIPA lawsuit brought by the developer who wanted to build for 1,000+ new residents on Hillside Avenue. In an interview in The Jewish Week, the Supervisor offered the following comments: "Airmont residents, according to St. Lawrence, are ‘doing everything they can to keep [Orthodox Jews] from coming into the community, and the federal government has had enough. I’ve spoken with the federal prosecutors,’ he said, ‘and they’re ready to teach Airmont a lesson.’"

Sometimes it just takes slandering an entire community, accusing them of anti-Semitism, and cheering on Federal prosecutors wielding the RLUIPA hammer. Sometimes it takes a little more. Like writing legislation for specific developers.

[One quick note on the bloc vote. It is vastly overrated. Representing 4,000 to 5,000 votes for St. Lawrence and his board members, it is delivered at catastrophic cost to the entire community. There are actually 54,397 registered voters in Ramapo and only 25,354 turned out for the last local election (2005). The 4,000 looks kind of small in the middle of that 54,397 number. The bloc with real power is the silent majority that can easily take back control of Ramapo when they decide they have had enough of urbanization and failing infrastructure.]

The Contagion of the Adult Student Housing law

When Preserve Ramapo broke the story about the rabbinical college in Pomona, we noticed a strange phrasing in one of the documents acquired. In the description of the buildings from the Tartikov lawyers, the following line appears: "The proposed adult student housing would average 1,800 square feet with three or four bedrooms." This is not an Adult Student Housing site, nor are these 100 acres in Ramapo. The site is in Pomona.

Have the attorneys for this enormous project decided to use the fabricated "right to adult student housing" guaranteed by St. Lawrence’s legislation in Ramapo as a phony legal premise, or even a vague threat?

Pomona will probably be facing an RLUIPA lawsuit once this application is presented to its planning board. And unlike Ramapo, it seems likely the residents of this very small village are up for the fight.

Overturning ASH

Four villages have sued the Town of Ramapo over the Adult Student Housing legislation. They are Chestnut Ridge, Pomona, Montebello, and Wesley Hills. Oral arguments were presented in December 2006 in the Appellate Court Division of the Supreme Court of the State of New York in Brooklyn Heights. The villages have asked the court to invalidate St. Lawrence’s gift to the high-density developers.

On the other hand, the opposition to RLUIPA is represented by scores of suits across the country. But the problems created by this federal law will not be resolved until the Supreme Court decides who should control local zoning—the Federal Government or local boards. It could take years.

A solution to Ramapo’s Adult Student Housing has a more direct route. This November, St. Lawrence and two complicit members of his board will be up for reelection. In what will take 15 minutes of your time, you can end this kind of political patronage offered to special interests whose intent is to urbanize Ramapo. RLUIPA has been described by attorneys as a hammer, but in the case of St. Lawrence’s ASH, we as voters can choose to be the hammer or we can continue to be the nail. Fortunately, we don’t have to wait for a federal court, and we only have to wait until November.

Michael Castelluccio