Ramapo under attack with zoning plans

 Community View By Robert I. Rhodes
(Original Publication in The Journal News February 10, 2007)

Business as usual will not save Ramapo. It is clear that suburban zoning in our villages and in unincorporated Ramapo is under attack. And it could not be taking place at a worse time.

- Thanks to recent population growth, our water system cannot provide the water pressure necessary for effective firefighting. The apartment house that recently burned down in New Square is a harbinger of things to come.

- United Water has finally been forced to admit that the only way it will be able to provide Rockland with an adequate supply of water will be if it uses Hudson River water. Its new filtration plant is scheduled to go online in 2017. By then our county's population will have grown another 15 or 20 percent. What will we do in the meantime if there is a drought?

- Ramapo Supervisor Christopher St. Lawrence, who is also a commissioner on our know-nothing/do-nothing sewer commission, still insists that there is nothing wrong with our sewers. The borough of Upper Saddle River doesn't agree. Its lawsuit under the federal Clean Waters Act will prove that our sewer system is grossly overloaded. It will take many years and perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars to rebuild the entire system from the collector lines in Monsey all the way to the sewer treatment plant in Orangeburg. Meanwhile raw sewage continues to flow into the Upper Saddle River whenever we have a really heavy rain.

Given this situation, any reasonable person would conclude that this is not the right time to encourage the construction of more apartment houses in Ramapo, but the forces encouraging population growth have a different idea.

- An applicant who wants to build a religious center in Airmont has told the Airmont planning board that the center will provide housing for only 250 people. Airmont's architectural adviser has calculated that the site will provide housing for 1,000 people.

- Plans have been announced for a rabbinical school in Pomona with 1,000 three- and four-bedroom apartments. I believe we will have to provide water and sewage for a population of perhaps 10,000 people.

- Then we have the owners of Patrick Farm in unincorporated Ramapo across the street from the proposed rabbinical school. They have not yet told us what they want to build. Unfortunately, thanks to Ramapo's crazy adult student housing law, they too will be able to argue that they are entitled to build another 1,000 or more apartments for folks involved in religious studies.

The villages of Airmont and Pomona are now facing years of litigation and millions of dollars in legal costs. Given Ramapo's past history, we can expect that Ramapo will not contest anything that is proposed for Patrick Farm. This will exempt Ramapo from expensive lawsuits, but will cost our residents many more millions of dollars for school costs not subsidized by New York state, sewer and water expansion, Ramapo's share of Rockland's Medicaid costs, and so forth.

Ramapo justified its passage of our "adult student housing" law by citing RLUIPA, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, passed by Congress in 2000. This law, which is constitutionally suspect, exempts "religious activities" from all land use controls that cannot be proven to be of "compelling government interest."

If Ramapo's opportunistic and cowardly Town Board had any guts it would repeal our so-called adult student housing law, and invite federal lawsuits under RLUIPA. Why should a small village like Pomona (population 3,200), or a larger village like Airmont (population 9,000) be forced to stand alone and defend themselves in federal court, when all of Ramapo with a population of about 130,000 is facing the same ruthless and well-financed religious interests?

The writer, a Suffern resident, is chairman of Preserve Ramapo.