St. Lawrence Turns His Back on the
Ramapo Fire Chiefs

October 26, 2009 At the beginning of this year (Jan. 14), the Ramapo Fire Chief’s Association sent an urgent letter to Supervisor St. Lawrence concerning unnecessary risks the volunteer firefighters faced in Ramapo due to building policies and violations there. They wrote, "These active Chiefs who supervise fire protection to the town and all its villages have become increasingly concerned by the conditions your firefighters are challenged with while trying to respond to fires and other emergencies within the Town of Ramapo. These conditions, in many cases are extremely serious and are putting the lives of the residents, firefighters, and other emergency workers in harms way. We are requesting a serious effort by all the Towns and Villages to assist us in performing our life saving services as efficiently as possible." The serious effort was not to come.

Extremely dangerous and untenable situation

The five areas of concern all centered around overbuilding and overcrowding and the lack of regard on the part of the Town for zoning and fire-code enforcement. The Chiefs who signed the letter are: Chief Ed Kelly (Hillburn), Chief Chris Kear (Hillcrest), Chief Douglass Perry (Monsey), Chief Kevin Hartnett (Sloatsburg), Chief Mike Johnson (Spring Valley), Chief John Dawson (Suffern), Chief Scott Meier (Tallman), and Chief Chris Schaber (South Spring Valley).

Here, from the letter, are the five current threats to the volunteers and the occupants of buildings in Ramapo:

1. Excessive parking on both sides of the street, particularly narrow residential roadways. All commercial and residential properties must be designed, approved, and enforced so as to provide sufficient off-street parking to meet the needs of each project and the legal occupancies. Variances to these parking requirements should only be granted in the most extreme and unusual circumstances. It appears that currently they are being granted on a routine basis which is creating these dangerous conditions. The Fire Chiefs will be happy to take any Town or Village official on a ride to observe these dangerous conditions as they currently exist. A delay of minutes or even seconds can result in a loss of life or property damage.

We are strongly opposed to private roads and common driveways being utilized for multiple building lots that do not provide proper street frontage and access to fire equipment and other emergency vehicles.

3. When a major fire occurs, it is imperative that the firefighters be provided with adequate accessibility around the buildings to rescue trapped occupants and fight the fires. Adequate separations or firewalls must be incorporated to prevent the spread of fire to adjacent buildings and to give us room to position our fire equipment.
Variances for lot coverage, reduction of the front, side, rear yard, or height can create dangerous and unacceptable conditions. These variances permit much larger dwellings and businesses to be constructed on smaller lots. Allowing buildings to be constructed in close proximity to each other restricts ladder usage as well as fire fighting and rescue operations.

There is currently an epidemic of serious building and fire code violations along with illegal occupancies. These conditions are rampant in many areas of the Town and Villages and are placing residents and our Volunteer Firefighters in extreme danger. Strict enforcement and compliance of all codes must be made a priority.

Adequate water should also be considered in the approval process for all large scale developments.

The Fire Chief’s Association concludes in a final paragraph:
he fire and building codes were designed and implemented because of deaths that have occurred throughout the country. By not following these state and nationally recognized codes, an extremely dangerous and untenable situation is being allowed to exist and expand if these projects continue to be approved, altered, and illegally occupied. We, as Volunteer Fire Chief's are united in our concern for the current conditions under which we are required to operate as well as what lays ahead in the future. Please take our joint request seriously."

Since January, the 6-for-1 downzoning in unincorporated Ramapo continues unabated with six residences replacing single-family homes; the Ramapo zoning board continues to provides variances in bundles, sometimes scores for a single project; the Board of Health has announced it will look into violations that should have long ago been dealt with by town building inspectors; and the threats to the volunteers increase.

Ten months after the receipt of this letter, Supervisor St. Lawrence decided to plaster over the problems with a public relations move timed for an election campaign boost. But rather than address the specific requests of the firefighters, he has decided to have the taxpayers incur another $1 million in debt to pay for extending an Opticom System that will allow firefighters to remotely time red lights as they approach intersections. A good system, but it's not one of the problems that the Chiefs  said were creating "extremely dangerous and untenable situations." It appears there's no way that St. Lawrence will tamper with his voting base. Not when he is looking to expand that base despite the dangers to the firefighters, emergency workers, and the occupants themselves.

Michael Castelluccio