MONSEY - Two state legislators from Rockland said Wednesday they will urge the governor to reject their bill offering a retroactive tax exemption to a congregation that illegally converted a single-family house into a school on Highview Road.
Assemblywoman Ellen Jaffee, D-Suffern, and state Sen. David Carlucci, D-New City, said they backed off support for the 2011 exemption for the Talmud Torah Ohr Yochanan because it had zoning violations and no certificate of occupancy. Jaffee also said there were other issues. The students are being taught in the four-bedroom house, including on the second floor in violation of zoning, and in two classroom trailers.
The Assembly and Senate approved the bill for Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s signature.
The lawmakers said the tax exemption requests are reviewed and considered routine.
“The more I’ve learned about what’s going on I was quite shocked and uncomfortable by the situation,” Jaffee said. “I asked that the bill be held until I am able to get further information.”
Calling it a “breach of trust,” Carlucci said the town issued incomplete information on the status of the school. Jaffee said the Assembly Real Property Tax Committee had reviewed and recommended the request based upon the documentation provided by the town.
“Until we have complete confidence there are no violations on any of the buildings, we are recommending the governor veto the bill we proposed,” Carlucci said.
An exemption for 2011 would have saved the congregation close to $19,000 for the school, and $11,000 on the caretaker’s house.
The school’s neighbors, Bob and Annette Doerr, wrote Cuomo last week asking him to not sign the tax exemption. They argued the school was started illegally in October 2009 without any town approvals and still lacks a certificate of occupancy and approved site plans.
The Doerrs told the governor that signing the exemption would be “rewarding an organization that has knowingly and repeatedly failed to abide by the laws of the state.”
The school is operating on a temporary certificate of occupancy, an approval given in 2010 that the Ramapo attorney had called potentially illegal.
Jaffee said she wants the Assembly rules changed to require a property have a certificate of occupancy before it becomes eligible for a retroactive tax exemption. She said a temporary certificate of occupancy or use is not sufficient.
The Ramapo tax assessor denied the tax exemption because of the violations and the lack of a certificate of occupancy. The Ramapo Board of Assessment Review overruled and the Town Attorney’s Office signed off on the exemption.
A fire to the caretaker’s house last week brought the school back into the spotlight.
The Doerrs have video surveillance on their property and estimated 190 to 200 students attend the school, as large yellow buses drop off and pick up the children daily. They also say parents drop off children by car.
They noted that the town attorney Michael Klein found the temporary certificate of occupancy issued by the then-zoning and building administrator — Judge Alan Simon — a few years ago was illegal.
They said Building Inspector Anthony Mallia approved two classrooms trailers, allowing the congregation to increase its enrollment. They said the school charges several thousand dollars per student.
Bob Doerr said they are pleased Jaffee and Carlucci are reconsidering.
“We are happy they are at least addressing it now,” Bob Doerr said. “Jaffee called me. She said she would ask the governor to veto if there are problems.”
The Rockland Illegal Housing Task Force has named the 95-97 Highview Road school on a list of several dozen properties for review by the state Codes Divisions, which is under Cuomo’s control. The task force argues the town and its courts have not moved adequately to stop the illegal subdivisions and schools and, months ago, asked for state intervention.
“If the town is going to continue with its policy of granting permissions after the fact and ignoring violations, it’s time for a higher authority to step in,” Task Force Chairman John Kryger said.
The Cape Cod-style house built in 1988 and converted into a school at 97 Highview Road is assessed at $77,300, with a market value of $502,274, according to the Ramapo Tax Assessor’s website. The split-level house at 95 Highview Road was built in 1952 and is assessed at $51,600, with a market value of $335,283.
In a similar case Wednesday, a state Supreme Court justice maintained a closure order against a religious school operating out of the former Singer’s Hotel and Caterers in Nanuet. Justice Margaret Garvey kept the school, operated by the Congregation Lizensk, closed. Clarkstown fire inspectors had found numerous violations at the school.
By Steve Lieberman - lohud.com