In a major victory for Ramapo environmentalists, a state appellate panel has annulled a Town Board zoning change and Planning Board approvals for the former Patrick Farm, blocking a massive housing development proposed for the site.
The multiple legal decisions this week send a Scenic Development LLC's proposal to build 470-plus housing units on 206 acres along the Route 202/306 corridor outside Pomona back to the starting gate.
"As we hoped, the appellate court agreed that the town’s original reviews were flawed and is now forcing the town of Ramapo to revisit the environmental impacts for the zone change, essentially returning the property back to its original low-density designation," said Deborah Munitz, a board member with the environmental group Ramapo Organized for Sustainability and a Safe Aquifer, known as ROSA.
ROSA and other activists have led the fight to ensure Ramapo follows the environmental regulations involving Scenic Development's proposal. Monsey developer Yechiel Lebovits and his family own the property, the former Patrick Farm, which they purchased from Clarkstown for $7.5 million in 2001.
"ROSA, along with our partners, worked tirelessly for the last seven years so that our cases against the town of Ramapo and Scenic Development were ironclad," said Susanne Mitchell, the organization's director. "ROSA's research and fact-based advocacy throughout our numerous legal proceedings led to the positive outcome we had all hoped for."
A call to the Lebovits company was not returned this morning. Scenic Development attorney Terry Rice of Suffern did not return a telephone call seeking comment.
Acting Supervisor Yitzchok Ullman said Thursday that the town is committed to ensuring the Patrick Farm development oversight is above board and open to the public. He said the town will review the decisions by the appellate panel before deciding its response.
“We are committed to ensuring that zoning and planning decisions in the town of Ramapo are made in a way that is transparent, responsible and sustainable," Ullman said. "We will review the court’s decisions — as well as any future submissions that the developers should decide to make — to ensure that any development on this site meets that criteria and resolves the issues identified by the courts.”
Incoming supervisor, deputy town attorney Michael Specht, Ullman and other Town Board members have promised to first review and update the town's master plan for zoning. The review is expected to take place next year. Any zone change before the Town Board could be delayed into 2018.
The appellate panel decisions require the Ramapo Town Board and its planning agencies to revisit a zone change that increased the property's permitted housing density, which would affect the region's drinking water sources, wetlands and the Columbia Gas pipeline.
The decision returns the land to its two-acre zoning.
The judicial panel found the Town Board and Planning Board failed to look at the development's impact on the environment during the decade-long process. The panel found "the record establishes that the Planning Board did not take a hard look at the issue of wetlands delineations or make a reasoned elaboration of the basis for its determination regarding these issues.”
At the time Lebovits purchased the property with family members, it was zoned for a single-family home on two-acre lots. At the developer's request, the Town Board in January 2010 rezoned the property to one-acre lots, and permitted multiple-family housing, which more than doubled the allowable units.
Joining ROSA in the legal fight against Scenic Development were Susan Shapiro, on behalf of her parents, and attorney Bruce Levine, on behalf of a local resident.
Opponents have said the former Patrick Farm site includes wetlands that feed the Mahwah River, a source of drinking water for Rockland and Bergen counties. They also expressed concerns about the development's proximity to a natural gas pipeline and contend the size of the project is out of character for that scenic swath of fast-growing Ramapo.
Susan Shapiro, attorney for Rockland Environmental Group, who represented her late parents, developer Milton Shapiro and his wife, Sonya, called the court decisions "an important win requiring the Town of Ramapo to comply with the laws."
She said the appellate judges annulled "Ramapo’s illegal approvals, which endangered public health and safety by allowing construction of high-density housing in close proximity to a pre-existing high pressure gas main and endangering a large portion of Rockland County’s drinking water supply.”
In the legal issue raised by Elizabeth Youngewirth, represented by Levine, and Pomona village, represented by the village's lawyer Doris Ullman, the appellate panel agreed that the Ramapo Town Board "failed to take a ‘hard look" at the environmental impact of placing the proposed development in close proximity to the existing Columbia Gas pipeline."
"The draft environmental impact statement contained only brief mention of the pipeline, which bisects the property, and Columbia Gas was omitted from the list of interested agencies," the panel wrote.