The town's top building and zoning administrator overstepped his authority by signing documents allowing families to live in 16 yeshiva-owned homes on Grandview Avenue despite fire and safety violations cited by inspectors, according to a lawsuit.
Lawsuit: Ramapo official OK’d unsafe yeshiva housing
By Steve Lieberman • Journal News
RAMAPO — The town's top building and zoning administrator overstepped his authority by signing documents allowing families to live in 16 yeshiva-owned homes on Grandview Avenue despite fire and safety violations cited by inspectors, according to a lawsuit.
The administrator and other Ramapo officials denied on Tuesday that people were permitted to move into unsafe housing.
The accusations were made by lawyers representing four villages that successfully blocked the town's partial approval of an environmental review for construction of 60 units in 12 multiple-family buildings on 4.7 acres.
The Mosdos Chofetz Chaim project called Kiryas Radin has been the subject of several legal actions since 2000.
Legal papers filed Monday say that after a town inspectors found violations of state fire codes, Alan Simon, the building and zoning administrator, likely acted illegally by signing the certificates of use on Aug. 25, 2009. The density of the project and closeness of the buildings remain issues.
The legal papers also argue Simon was not qualified under state law to sign building permits and certificates of occupancy, nor does his job description with Ramapo state that he has such authority.
Attorney Michael D. Zarin of White Plains said Tuesday that the signing of the certificates placed the "occupants in danger." He has asked the judge to empty the buildings.
"We have informed the court that we have learned that the certificates of occupancy were improperly issued," Zarin said. "We don't believe he was lawfully authorized to do so."
Simon, a former Ramapo town attorney who also is a Spring Valley village justice, said Tuesday that when he signed the certificates, inspections had been done by the town on the 16 units and that he was not aware of any safety and fire violations.
He said he signed them based on state Supreme Court Justice Francis Nicolai's order to allow occupancy if there were no violations.
Simon, Town Attorney Michael Klein and a deputy building inspector said Tuesday that there were violations elsewhere on the property at that time and in uninhabited housing units.
Violations on the property remain, but the owners are close to rectifying them, said Anthony Mallia, assistant director of building and code enforcement.
The lawsuit — based on town inspection reports and internal town memos — contends there were 53 violations in June 2009 and 58 unresolved issues in July 2009. As of March of this year, there were 39 violations.
Simon said he had the authority to sign certificates.
"Under my belief, I have full power to do anything here, in compliance with the law," Simon said.
Before allowing the families to move into the housing, Simon said, 16 people signed affidavits that they were either students or teachers.
Klein declined to comment Tuesday on whether he thought Simon was legally empowered to sign the certificates. He said attorney-client privilege precluded him from talking about any discussions or correspondence with Simon on the issue.
Supervisor Christopher St. Lawrence said Simon and the inspectors did nothing wrong. He said Chofetz Chaim must meet the judge's ruling to revise an environmental study concerning the student-housing complex's impact on traffic and the character of the neighborhood.
The latest court filing is part of a lawsuit brought by Chestnut Ridge, Montebello, Pomona and Wesley Hills against Ramapo's adult student housing zones.
Kiryas Radin on Grandview Avenue is a campus for Yeshiva Mosdos Chofetz Chaim. Rabbi Yisrael Meir Poupko was known as the Chofetz Chaim, an influential Eastern European rabbi and ethicist. The Zaks family, which runs the yeshiva, claims kinship to the rabbi, who died in 1933.
Although Nicolai upheld Ramapo's adult student housing zone, he found the yeshiva failed to conduct a proper environmental review before construction of housing and shul.
Chofetz Chaim yeshiva officials moved in the 16 families last year, in violation of Nicolai's injunction.
Nicolai permitted the families to stay pending the yeshiva's appeal, but ordered the yeshiva to put down a $75,000 surety bond.
Ramapo almost used taxpayer money to help the yeshiva. In a letter dated April 21, Rabbi Aryeh Zaks asked Simon "to help us find a solution for this immediate crisis" to secure the bond.
Simon said he passed the request on to St. Lawrence, who then wanted the Town Board to consider providing the $75,000 for Zaks.
Klein blocked the move, saying Tuesday that the request would have been an "inappropriate use of public money."