There are fire and safety violations at many of the buildings, "hazards [that] continue to pose a risk to all residents." An inspection covered 36 basements and found problems ranging from missing stair railings to gas lines not being properly capped. There was a problem with some fire alarm systems and exposed wiring.
Ramapo inspectors find evidence of 17 more yeshiva-owned units illegally occupied
By Steve Lieberman • Journal News
RAMAPO — Town inspectors found safety violations and evidence of 17 additional homes being illegally occupied at a yeshiva-owned student housing development off Grandview Avenue outside New Hempstead, according to a memo outlining the results.
The use of those units operated by Mosdos Chofetz Chaim without permits violates town law and a state judge's order permitting only 16 units to be occupied pending legal action and Planning Board decisions on environmental issues for the entire development, officials said.
Ramapo's two fire inspectors and a code enforcement officer inspected the development Nov. 15 and outlined their findings in a memo dated Thursday to Anthony Mallia, assistant director of building and code enforcement.
Ramapo Town Attorney Michael Klein said Saturday that if evidence of 17 additional units being occupied is sustained, Mosdos Chofetz Chaim violated the judge's order and town law.
"The order from the Supreme Court judge was limited to occupancy of no more than 16 dwelling units," Klein said.
Klein said the town could seek a state court injunction against Mosdos Chofetz Chaim and ask a judge to issue warrants to allow inspection of the living areas.
The yeshiva, run by Rabbi Aryeh Zaks and his family, has built 60 units within 12 buildings and a study center for religious students and their families.
Joseph J. Haspel, a lawyer for Mosdos Chofetz Chaim, did not return a telephone call for comment.
Klein said the inspectors acted on a complaint of health and fire code violations from Gordon Wren Jr., Rockland County coordinator of Fire and Emergency Services.
Town Supervisor Christopher St. Lawrence did not return messages left at Town Hall and on his cell phone.
The inspectors wrote that a yeshiva representative, Gittel Zaks, would not allow inspections of living areas. She allowed them to inspect basements, common areas, the outside property and the Koellel study center building.
She told them the living areas "could only be inspected under the direct supervision of Rabbi Zaks, who was unavailable at the time of the inspection," the memo said.
The memo said the inspectors determined people were living in 17 unauthorized units based on operating water heaters, religious symbols on doorways, and personal items on front porches.
The memo to Mallia also lists fire and safety violations at many of the buildings, concluding "hazards continue to pose a risk to all residents ... Please advise us how you wish us to proceed."
This month, Mallia signed new certificates after he reinspected the 16 units when the temporary documents expired.
The more recent inspection covered 36 basements and found problems ranging from missing stair railings to gas lines not being properly capped. There was a problem with some fire alarm systems and exposed wiring.
The inspectors again noted that the buildings appeared to be less than 10 feet apart, a violation of state code.
The memo also said representatives of Mosdos Chofetz Chaim have not showed up in Town Court to answer tickets issued that outlined violations and site-plan deficiencies.
The memo said the first court appearance was in May and multiple adjournments were issued when representatives didn't appear.
A history of legal disputes in federal and state courts surrounds the site since the yeshiva bought the former U.S. Army Nike property more than a decade ago.
A federal court settlement in 2000 put the 4.7-acre property under the zoning control of Ramapo, rather than New Hempstead, which opposed the development.
Mosdos recently refiled a federal civil rights lawsuit based on religion against several villages. Four villages filed a state action in 2004 to block the town's adult student housing zone.
Supreme Court Justice Francis Nicolai upheld the zone, but found the town needed to review the development's impact on traffic and the character of the single-family neighborhood.
Last year, Nicolai allowed Mosdos Chofetz Chaim to house 16 families on a humanitarian basis.
Chofetz Chaim brought the families to Rockland for housing.
Nicolai bypassed his own injunction on occupying the units as long as Ramapo found there were no fire and safety violations at the units.
Ramapo officials issued temporary certificates of use, though the legality of those documents were questioned in court papers because of the site's safety violations and whether Zoning Administrator Alan Simon had the authority to sign the documents.
Nicolai also ordered the congregation to put down a $75,000 surety bond, which took more than 10 months and occurred after a threat of eviction.
This month, Mallia signed new certificates after he reinspected the 16 units when the temporary documents signed by Simon expired.
Mosdos Chofetz Chaim is before the Ramapo Planning Board on the environmental and site-plan issues. All the units must meet state fire and safety codes and town regulations for people to live in them.