Ohr Torah & Chabad synagogue at 360 Route 306
Monsey — After coming under fierce criticism from Hillcrest firefighters, the mayor today will begin the legal process to shut down a Route 306 religious school that continues teaching children amid what firefighters consider unsafe conditions.
Mayor Lawrence Dessau instructed the village attorney last week to take steps to make sure the building is vacated.
The village’s code enforcement officer did not work Friday, but the mayor said he would visit the school today.
Hillcrest Fire Chief Lloyd Hovelmann said the school is operating without any village approvals for the construction of the building or an addition.
It was unacceptable as far as the village letting this go on,” said Hovelmann, who was among the 10 volunteer firefighters to express outrage about village inaction at a New Hempstead Board of Trustees meeting on Thursday night.
While the lawyer for Ohr Torah and the New Hempstead mayor contend the school has installed adequate fire safety equipment since buying the 10-year-old property in March, the Hillcrest fire chief and other officials countered that’s not enough to ensure the safety of students. All of the interested parties are expected to meet Wednesday.
I am concerned about the violations, the lack of certificate of occupancy and no permits for construction,” said Hovelmann, adding the school should be closed until it gets proper inspections and approvals. “I am concerned for the children.”
Dessau had hoped to work out an agreement with school administrators to bring it up to standards, but Trustee Michael Koplen said the village should not make special exemptions because it risked traveling down a slippery slope.
Koplen said the firefighters on Thursday “excoriated” the board, particularly the mayor, for allowing the building to operate without a certificate of occupancy.
It was one of the more intense board meetings that I’ve attended, and I’ve been on the board for more than 10 years,” he said.
Before the meeting, Dessau said he had given the congregation a “little slack” since “they are working on a site plan.”
I am trying to be compassionate about this and make everyone happy,” he said.
By Thursday night, he had changed his mind.
The firefighters took a “very hard stance,” he said, and he was now following their path.
We were in agreement that we would move ahead as soon as possible to avoid litigation and use diplomacy, but that all fell apart,” Dessau said.
The firefighters argued the original owner constructed the building illegally about 10 years ago without village approvals or permits and it has been expanded over the years. There has been no adequate inspection of the plumbing or electrical wiring or an architect review of the plans, they said.
The school is operating in a single-family zone, inside a 5,282-square-foot building that once had four bedrooms and 4½ baths.
Dessau and the school’s lawyer, Ira M. Emanuel, said they were confident the building is safe and plans for the school will be provided to the village planning and zoning board.
Fire Inspector Christopher Kear, also a Hillcrest firefighter, found the building safe, the mayor and the lawyer said. Kear did not return several phone calls Thursday.
As we sit here today my understanding is there are no building or fire safety code violations,” Emanuel said.
I am satisfied that the fire inspector, who is the guy who has the knowledge and training, is satisfied,” he said.
Both Emanuel and Dessau acknowledged the building doesn’t have a certificate of occupancy. The original owner, Mates Cantor, a rabbi from Australia, built the house without any approvals and permits from the village.
Cantor sold the property to Ohr Torah for $995,000 in March 2011, according to a deed of sale filed with the Rockland County Clerk’s Office. The assessed value is $223,700 and the village property tax is $1,073, according figures from the Village Clerk’s Office.
The firefighters learned about the safety issues and violations after going to a boiler room fire in May near the building’s communal bath, called a mikvah.
Emanuel said the congregation needs to get recommendations from Hovelmann and the Fire Department as part of its plans. Emanuel said Hovelmann won’t meet with him and the congregation, something the fire chief countered was false.
The mayor, school officials, Fire Department and others are scheduled for a meeting Wednesday.
I don’t know what will come out of the meeting,” Dessau said.
Hovelmann said the fire district was looking to get the state code commission involved in ensuring compliance in Ramapo. He noted the fire district’s added attention got the village of New Square to clean up violations.
New Hempstead and Wesley Hills incorporated as villages in 1983 to enforce zoning and fire and safety laws because many thought Ramapo was not.
Residents of those two neighboring villages also wanted to maintain the single-family nature of their communities from the migration of ultra-Orthodox Jews from Monsey.
Gordon Wren Jr., a Hillcrest firefighter and former Ramapo building inspector who is the coordinator of the Rockland Office of Fire and Emergency Services, said localities shouldn’t send the message that people can illegally open a school and then make it legal if they get caught.
You can’t just make a house into a school without licensed people reviewing what was done,” Wren said.
How can the village tell if the work has been done properly inside the walls, if there are no building permits, no Planning Board approvals or inspections?” he said.