Wednesday, February 16, 2011
Ramapo inspectors find evidence of 22 illegally occupied units at congregation's development
Ramapo building and fire inspectors have found evidence of 22 apartments being occupied in violation of a state judge's order and town regulations at a congregation's adult student housing project off Grandview Road outside New Hempstead.
Despite denials of illegal apartments by Mosdos Chofetz Chaim, 22 out of 44 apartments inspected on Feb. 7 had signs of people living inside, according to the town report.
While inspecting each apartment, inspectors found combinations of stored food, ovens recently used, personal items, beds, towels, furniture, laundry and other items like toiletries.
"Many of the units we found furnished and included personal items that were not present in our previous inspection in December," Chief Building Inspector Anthony Mallia wrote in a Feb. 10 letter to Town Attorney Michael Klein.
"Last time I didn't see things like food, splattered grease or personal items," Mallia said. "I have asked the town attorney for guidance on enforcement."
The inspectors also found the apartments were safe and the congregation had remedied most of the violations found in basements during a November inspection. The unfinished buildings remain in violation because they were built less than 10 feet apart. Chofetz Chaim representatives and Rabbi Aryeh Zaks could not be reached for comment.
Mallia said Zaks family members deny moving people into the development. He said they tell him people store their personal items in anticipation of moving in.
Mosdos Chofetz Chaim has permission to use no more than 16 apartments and only for religious school students at its Kiryas Radin development. The congregation is before the Ramapo Planning Board on environmental impact issues involving 60 apartments within the center.
Ramapo will turn Mallia's inspection report over to state Supreme Court Justice Francis Nicolai, who could issue fines against Mosdos Chofetz Chaim for contempt of his order and evict the tenants.
Nicolai has presided over a legal action against the congregation brought by four Ramapo villages, whose lawyers have asked for evictions and legal fees approaching $75,000.
Ramapo officials also could bring charges against the congregation for housing people without approvals.
"We have submitted the report to Judge Nicolai, and await his determination," Klein said. "We can independently start a Justice Court proceeding against them for using the units without certificates of occupancy or use."
Nicolai allowed use of 16 units in August 2009 if the apartments met safety codes. Nicolai made the exception despite his injunction when Rabbi Aryeh Zaks told him the families were from Israel and would otherwise be homeless.
The Feb. 7 inspection was the third since November, with each finding evidence of illegal use.
In late January, attorneys for four villages provided Nicolai with utility bills that indicated at least 17 more units were illegally occupied. Nicolai said the evidence was overwhelming; he called Ramapo derelict in its duties to uphold his order and town zoning rules and order another inspection.
Zaks filed for bankruptcy protection in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in January, contending that filing stopped Nicolai's hearing or any other actions against the congregation. A federal judge voided Nicolai's hearing on Jan. 31, meaning the villages will have to reintroduce its utility bills and other evidence.
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.
The Ramapo-based yeshiva that is building adult-student housing on Grandview Avenue has filed for bankruptcy protection, claiming debts of $16.4 million associated with the complex.
Mosdos Chofetz Chaim's Chapter 11 filing on Monday also attempted to prevent a state judge from holding an investigatory hearing into whether the yeshiva illegally housed families in 17 apartments beyond his approval at the site just outside New Hempstead, according to a letter from the congregation's lawyer.
The letter stated the filing stayed all actions concerning the congregation.
Supreme Court Justice Frances Nicolai held the hearing anyway on Wednesday in the Rockland County Courthouse in New City and plans on hearing testimony and accepting evidence on Jan. 31.
The congregation's leader, Rabbi Aryeh Zaks, was subpoenaed to testify but didn't show up on Wednesday. He is expected at the next hearing date.