A school constructed at 33 Forshay Road, that is deemed unsafe, is photographed Wednesday in Monsey. Several schools in the area have been deemed unsafe.
These residential houses were not built to be converted into schools, lacking, in many cases, fire-suppression systems, the proper size corridors and doors, and emergency exits, said Gordon Wren Jr., a former Ramapo building inspector and now the coordinator of the Rockland Office of Fire and Emergency Services.
Ramapo Town Board members recently made the modular units legal for temporary use up to two years to allow for proper construction of school building, though most were originally installed in violation of town zoning. The modular units meet the criteria for classrooms, if they are maintained and not overcrowded, authorities say.
Ramapo officials said they have no beef with what the firefighters are planning, as building inspectors try to keep up with the illegal occupancies and construction.
“We are all on the same page,” Ramapo Building Inspector Anthony Mallia said. “We will never justify illegal housing of any kind. Our position is it must be done legally or they will end up in court when we catch them.”
Like the Forshay Road school run by Congregation Aters Yisroel, other congregations are using modular units while trying to legalize schools.
“I get it,” Mallia said. “I know they are not happy. Our job is to enforce the zoning laws of the town. The modular units are built to be safe and are legal for classrooms.”
And because many fire officials believe local land-use boards ignore their recommendations, an estimated 20 to 25 volunteers are taking county-offered courses on planning and zoning with plans to lobby elected officials for appointments to the local boards.
Firefighters want changes because they fear surprises when they enter burning buildings, such being blocked off by illegally partitioned spaces, locked multiple bedrooms, people living illegally in attics and basements, and explosive chemicals in basements from unknown businesses.
“We’re doing this for the same reason we go into burning buildings in the middle of the night under all types of conditions,” Gordon said. “We’re doing this for public safety. We’re doing this to protect our own. We want people in government to enforce the fire and safety codes.”
Another major concern is the lack of bite in the fines issue by local judges. The firefighters contend several thousand dollars amount to the cost of doing business for many landlords, Kryger said.
Some communities have maximum fines reaching $10,000, potentially per charge, if not per day, in some cases.
Haverstraw town and West Haverstraw have increased their fines for violations for illegal housing conversions, and Stony Point and Clarkstown are clamping down on illegally converted occupancies.
“We’re not going to take it anymore,” Kryger said. “We’re shouldn’t have to be adversarial and we do so reluctantly. We’re not asking for anything ridiculous.”
They believe money is the motivating factor for landlords to pack houses with dozens of tenants or ignore health and safety violations.
They believe zoning variances and the lack of oversight allow developers to builder cheaper housing and pack more units into smaller plots of land. They noted cases of the Rockland County Planning Department rejecting development plans, only for the town to overrule that finding.
Ramapo fire department leaders feel the Ramapo Planning Board ignored their recommendations for nearly 500-home Patrick Farms by routes 306 and 202 near Pomona. Firefighters argued the plans for the high-density project don’t allow for enough room for fire vehicles to gain access to parts of the proposed development.
They said too many houses are being subdivided with illegal partitions into smaller apartments, allowing landlords to pack in more tenants and make more money on rents.
In late April, a fire erupted in a West Central Avenue house that had been partitioned into small apartments. The town issued violation notices to the owner. Gordon said he issued violation notices to three other houses on the block.
They said they are upset by serious fire code violations and the trend of makeshift schools operating in wood-framed buildings.
In a January letter to Supervisor Christopher St. Lawrence, the Ramapo fire chiefs presented their concerns and emphasized they have no objection to the buildings properly planned and constructed.
St. Lawrence said he supports legal, safe housing for all the people who live in Ramapo, promoting housing as head of the Ramapo Local Development Corp., which is building units on Elm Street near Spring Valley.
He has denied accusations of catering to developers in the Orthodox Jewish community and supporting appointments to land-use boards who support the housing and yeshiva aspirations of the community.
Kryger said firefighters plan to expand the effort to other Rockland towns.
Their efforts have led to a proposed state law that would impose a fine of $1,000 to $10,000, with a possible year in jail if the construction or use of a building results in a fire or other emergency evacuation.
Rockland firefighters also are motivated by the fatal blaze in the Bronx in January 2005. Dubbed “Black Sunday,” the apartment fire turned into a deathtrap forcing six firefighters, including John Bellew of Pearl River and Jeff Cool of Pomona, to jump from a fourth-floor window after they were trapped by illegally constructed walls.
Bellew and Lt. Curtis Meyran were killed. Cool , badly injured in the fire , is a member of the task force that has been fielding calls of illegal housing for more than a year.
Steve Lieberman • JournalNews