The Patrick Farm Sellout— Three Betrayals
Patrick Farm is a 200-acre parcel of land at the intersection of Routes 202 and 306. On the property are streams, ponds, and wetlands that feed the Mahwah River, a water source that provides many Rocklanders their drinking water. Those who have walked the property, including the Town Supervisor, invariably have been impressed with the woods and waterways. It is one of the most beautiful sites in the entire town.
The properties immediately surrounding the farm appear on the New York State Historic Preservation Office maps as archeologically sensitive. They have been given that designation by the State as former Indian hunting grounds. This part of the locale’s history goes back to the Lenni Lenape tribe, dating back probably more than 5,000 years.
The farm was called Hasty Hill by its most famous owner, Pulitzer-prize-winning playwright and screenwriter John Patrick. On Patrick Farm there’s still a visible reminder of the author's most memorable work (The Teahouse of the August Moon)--there's a lake with an island pagoda.
Today, Patrick Farm is owned by developers intent on cutting up the property for high-density housing. Owners Yechiel Lebovits (and his sons Aron and Chaim) and Abraham Moscovits of Scenic Development, LLC (formerly, Scenic Properties of Brooklyn, LLC) have been given permission by Christopher St. Lawrence and the town board to erect apartment houses and religious institutions in far greater numbers than what the established zoning for the area would ever have allowed.
St. Lawrence declared the Farm as one of four Adult Student Housing (A.S.H.) sites in the Town of Ramapo. The original zoning for the area would allow only one house to be built on two acres. With the St. Lawrence downzoning scheme, the builder’s can place 16 apartments on one acre. With the A.S.H designation, there must be religious educational institutions on the property, but they only have to amount to 10% of the total building. That leaves 90% of the growth for housing complexes for married students in whose family only one adult needs to be a student.
The occupants and their families will be exempt from real estate taxes. The tax burden actually will shift to the rest of the community outside the development. Residents elsewhere in Ramapo will pick up the tax burden to provide road maintenance, snow removal, sewer systems, 911 services, as well as educational services for the children of the adult students that will not be repaid under the current state aid formulas.
It makes no sense to appeal to the Supervisor to reconsider this spot zoning. It was his urbanization solution that set up the four Adult Student Housing zones. The village mayors protested, and then they sued the Supervisor over the A.S.H. scheme. And you can’t petition the Town Board members. They all seem to move as one. In fact, at a recent meeting one of the board members got up and explained why he couldn’t vote against the establishment of these zones. "I have been threatened with a lawsuit," he explained. He asked if anyone in the hall would be willing to pick up his legal expenses because that was the only way that he would be able to change his vote. No one responded. His vote had been purchased with little more than a threat. Last week, there was an announcement Mr. Friedman was up for a 4% annual raise as board member. He’ll probably get up the moxie to vote on that, I would guess.
The protected wetlands on the Patrick Farm feed an aquifer which is directly adjacent to the property. The aquifer and wells have been identified by the U.S. Geological Survey as stressed and in danger of not being replenished at the appropriate rates. The Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for monitoring inland waterways and wetlands.
On May 17, 2004, the N.Y. District of the Army Corps of Engineers issued a Cease and Desist Order to Scenic Development, LLC, limiting further construction and activities on Patrick Farm. The order was based on observations by a representative of their office during the course of a site inspection. Without filing site plans, the developer had begun to clear the land, damaging federally and state-protected wetlands, improperly depositing fill, draining waterways, and altering the course of a stream that feeds the headwaters of the Mahwah River, which eventually feeds the Ramapo River. The agency instructed the developers to cease and desist and to "restore to natural contour" altered areas of the wetland.
Leonard Jackson Associates, an engineering firm working for Scenic Development, was given a Clarification on Requirements for Mitigation early in June 2004.
Not all the damage has been remediated. An alteration to the dam (photo above) to lower the lake level has not yet been fixed. And now there are further complications. The staff of the N.Y. Army Corps of Engineers has been severely cut back (two people are left to serve all of Southern New York State), and the NY State Department of Environmental Control with the Army Corps have turned the responsibility over to the Town of Ramapo. The same people who created the A.S.H. high-density spot zoning now will be watching over the remediation, and they’re also going to watch for any future violations.
A final irony involves the Mahwah/Ramapo River Keeper, Geoff Welch. Mr. Welch is supposed to make sure that the town government and the developers do not violate sound environmental management. He recently walked the property at Patrick Farm and was reported to be very upset with the damage done to waterways. Geoff Welch, the town’s designated guardian of the environment, lives in one of Christopher St. Lawrence’s houses, and the town board last week adjusted his consulting fee by raising it by 66.6% (that’s not a typo).
The Final Betrayal
In a democracy, citizens have the right to petition their government to redress social injustices. The residents in the area around Patrick Farm soon realized that their concerns and protests about the downzoning and environmental issues were not going to be heard by at-large board members or a compromised supervisor. A petition was developed for the establishment of a new village—a procedure both legal and proper according to New York law. The area is situated within two towns, Haverstraw and Ramapo, so the petition for the new village of Ladentown would have to be found legally sufficient by both Town Supervisors.
On August 2, 2004, Supervisor Howard Phillips of Haverstraw found the petition legally sufficient to put a village formation referendum before the citizens so they might vote on it. Supervisor Christopher St. Lawrence of Ramapo found the petition not legally sufficient so residents were denied the right to vote on forming a village. All of the objections that the Town of Ramapo used to find the petition deficient were submitted by associates of the developers of Patrick Farm. The objections were submitted in writing and despite recorded public comments to have the town attorney read these objections into the record, St. Lawrence indicated that the objections would be available the next day. The objections were never made known to the public until after the public hearings were closed.
The legal appeal launched by the residents of Ladentown is still in the courts, and Christopher St. Lawrence still stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the developers against the residents’ right to vote on their own political future. Most recently (Sept. 23), St. Lawrence and "two developers opposed giving the organizers of the proposed village of Ladentown more time to appeal a rejection of their petition to incorporate (Journal News)." The Appellate division of the NY State Supreme Court has overruled the objections submitted by St. Lawrence and the developers, and an extension has been granted to the Ladentown petitioners to have their new attorney, Doris Ulman, perfect the appeal.
We have arrived at a point in Ramapo history when those who make fortunes in development also now control the access ordinary citizens have to their constitutional rights. Yet on their part, the developers ignore environmental regulations, and ask for, and get, outrageous exemptions from the zoning laws that apply to everyone but them. And at their side is the town Supervisor Christopher St. Lawrence with the Ramapo Town Board standing right behind them.
Michael Castelluccio, Brett Yagel, Marlaine Paone