BY ROBERT KNIGHT
ROCKLAND COUNTY TIMES
Orangetown’s “War of the Masons” heated up two weeks ago to the point where it appeared World War III had erupted over who could regulate use of the German Masonic Fairgrounds in Tappan – the Masons who own and operate it or the Town of Orangetown which controls parking, attendance, drinking and noise through various town ordinances.
The escalating battle, which began simmering last year, erupted into a boil at the Town Board’s March 12 meeting. By meeting’s end considerable confusion remained following nearly two hours of recriminations, but little light was shed on the problem’s origin, or how to resolve it.
Town Board members chastised Supervisor Andrew Stewart, blaming him for creating the conflict by allegedly “threatening” the Masons into toning down the use of their 7-acre fairgrounds. Stewart in turn said he was merely passing on complaints and requests he had received from neighbors of the fairgrounds, home to several ethnic and fraternal festivals every year, some of which attract thousands of visitors.
More than a hundred residents attended the meeting, taking turns lambasting town government in general for interfering in a private organization’s activities, and defending the Masons for providing their coveted fairgrounds to any group needing a temporary home for multi-day large events such as picnics, festivals and carnivals.
By week’s end, Masonic Fairgrounds director Kurt Ott had sent an e-mail to all of the groups that use the site, announcing that because of the squabble over land use the fairgrounds would be closed to the public this year and that all events already scheduled were being cancelled. This included outside groups such as the Irish Feis of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, the German-American beer festival, a Polish-American festival, the famed Oktoberfest and a three-day gathering and picnic by the Nam Knights, a veterans organization of Vietnamese war vets.
Also included was the Town of Orangetown’s own summer day camp which serves about 225 youngsters aged 5-13, which uses the site daily over three sessions when school is closed for summer vacation. The Masons do not charge for use of the site, billing the town $1 for the two-month camping period.
By early this week, Stewart announced that the Masons had relented and have agreed to once again use the park for its summer camp, and that registrations are proceeding as originally scheduled.
Still unresolved is the use of the fairgrounds by other outside groups, or by the Masons themselves. Ott has declined comment on the dispute so far.
And Stewart’s announcement of the re-opening of the day camp made no mention of whether the town still intends to try and restrict use of the fairgrounds in any way, such as limiting the hours of operation, the noise and light levels that will be permitted and how parking and drinking will be regulated.
Word of the escalating war of words between the town and the Masons had begun filtering out of town hall just over a month ago. Town Board members, anxious to keep a lid on the simmering dispute while also attempting to perform damage control, managed to keep it all “in-house” until the March 12 council meeting. By then the rumors had reached a crisis stage and the auditorium was filled with angry residents, group members and Masons themselves, all demanding answers to questions that had never been publicly raised until then.
Spectators at the meeting who were unaware of the dispute were caught off guard and left to wonder if they had accidentally stumbled into a mythic civil war battle with a murky history, murky accusations, murky sides and murky solutions. Unfortunately, the two-hour battle produced more words and heat than it did clarification, and most left thoroughly confused and unsure of what they had just witnessed.
There appeared to be at least four sides in the battle. One was the Noble Ninth, a New York City based umbrella affiliation of several German-American Masonic Lodges, which owns and operates the Tappan Masonic Fairgrounds. Another clearly defined group, well represented by their members, were the various ethnic and fraternal organizations which use the fairgrounds for their spring, summer and fall festivals. These included the Rockland chapters of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, the Nam Knights, the Blauvelt Lodge of the Sons of Italy and various German and Polish clubs.
A third group is comprised of Tappan residents who live near the fairgrounds, located at 89 Western Highway. It was they who gathered a petition signed by more than 100 of their neighbors, requesting the town to tone down the days and hours of operation of the various fairs and festivals, as well as the noise and light they emit, especially late at night, and to restrict parking off of their adjacent streets and lawns.
The fourth group consists of town government but that too is broken into at least three component parts. Stewart, a Democrat, and the four-man town council, all Republicans, have split bitterly over this issue, with Stewart attempting to play peacemaker and the council accusing him of interfering and causing the problem to escalate.
Caught in Middle
Caught in the middle are various town departments, each of which bears a portion of the responsibility to controlling use of the Fairgrounds. The Highway Department controls parking, while the building department and code enforcement department control site usage and noise and light complaints and the police department controls public drinking, nuisance and other complaints.
Department heads have so far taken a hands-off position on the escalating dispute, saying they will await orders from the Town Board as to how enforcement is to be handled this year. In the past, they add, they have worked closely with both the Masons and the sponsoring organizations of each festival, and have had generally good cooperation and few problems.
By the time the invectives shouted in all directions at the March 12 board meeting subsided, along with the accusations, assertions, denials and smoke cleared from the Town Hall auditorium, no one seemed quite certain what had occurred, or why, or how the apparent damage done could ever be repaired.
Everyone did seem to agree that the main issue is who controls the use of the Masons’ large and beautiful fairgrounds in Tappan, which are extensively used from May through late October by the whole Rockland community and even the town itself.
And everyone also seemed to agree that whoever ultimately gets the blame for the blowup, it should not be Ott, the chairman of the Masonic Fairground Committee.
Ott, a long-time Pearl River resident who has administered the site for decades on behalf of the German Masonic Order of New York City, was present for the dustup Tuesday but did not speak. He did smile repeatedly; however, as speaker after speaker praised him and his Masonic order for their benevolence both in allowing outside use of their fairgrounds and for their year-round Masonic charitable and philanthropic activities.
Most of those present and speaking, including members of the Town Board, seemed to indicate that their chief suspect was Supervisor Andrew Stewart, whom they blamed for inadvertently inserting himself in an essentially private matter and creating what almost looked like a new world war breaking out.
Stewart repeatedly denied the accusation, tried unsuccessfully to calm frayed tempers down and ultimately agreed to allow council members to meet with Ott themselves, without his being present, to see if peace could be restored to the troubled town.
The Masons have had a presence in Tappan since 1888, when they purchased more than 100 acres of prime farmland near the hamlet center, immediately west of Greenbush Road.
They used the large Victorian home of Johanna Reuter on the site as a home for aging Masons, getting their first tenant the following year. It was so successful they built a much larger wooden retirement home nearby a year or two later.
When the land was later bisected by the construction of the new Western Highway in 1894, the Masons decided to convert the original home site into a fairground, and construct a new home on the hillside across the street. This was completed in 1908 and dedicated in 1909, a beautiful three-story red brick Georgian-style edifice with magnificent porches, plazas and a huge whit cupola.
Financial support for the new and enlarged facility came from the expanded fairground on the plain across the street, where the Masons held annual bazaars, carnivals and beer festivals amidst the dozens of buildings, main pavilion, dance hall, picnic grounds and athletic fields.
Their German Traubenfest galas became institutions in Rockland County, drawing thousands of visitors both locally and from the city, where the German Masonic order was headquartered.
And as similar types of facilities started to disappear for housing and commercial development throughout Rockland County, the Masons began allowing outside organizations to hold similar events there as well, usually at no cost or for a minimal donation.
Apparently no one ever complained about the German Masonic picnics, concerts and beer festivals, since they had been held at the fairgrounds long before any homes were built nearby.
That started changing a few years ago, however, when the Masons began allowing Polish and other organizations to hold similar events there, including non-ethnic groups such as the Nam Knights, a motorcycle club of Vietnam War veterans that raises funds for veteran causes.
Three years ago, they allowed the Order Sons of Italy’s Blauvelt lodge to hold a three-day Italian festival at the fairgrounds and complaints started trickling in to Town Hall about excessive noise, music, lights, public drinking and visitors parking in neighbors driveways and on their streets and lawns, blocking traffic.
As the attendance swelled to an estimated 40,000 guests over the past two years, the complaints swelled as well. They were handled on an individual basis, however, and town officials seemed to be able to quell the uprising, with considerable help from both the Masons and the groups that were sponsoring the various events.
The tipping point appears to have been the announcement last month that the Ancient Order of Hibernians in Rockland County had decided to re-locate their annual Irish Feis from the Anthony Wayne Recreation Park off the Palisades Parkway in Stony Point to the Masonic Fairgrounds this spring. The four-day event was expected to bring about 10,000 vehicles each day, and a total estimated crowd of 50,000 or more.
The news was more than Tappan neighbors were prepared to endure. Horrified at the prospect of such an invasion of their residential area, they quickly gathered a petition which they presented to Supervisor Stewart, demanding that the town put restrictions on what and when and how the Irish Feis could operate, from restricting parking to just the fairgrounds and limiting hours of operation and the amount of light and noise it could generate each night.
Unsure of how to handle such a request, Stewart said he reached out to Ott, as chairman of the fairgrounds, requesting that they get together and see what could be arranged to assuage the upset neighbors.
From that point on, starting about two weeks ago, accounts of what happened next seem to vary widely, depending on the viewpoint of the speaker.
Stewart insists he sent a “nice” letter to Ott, requesting the meeting and his cooperation in calming frayed nerves. The letter was “polite” Stewart says in hind-site, “and I offered my and the town’s assistance in resolving this problem before it got out of hand.”
Ott has never spoken publicly of the letter, or the dispute, since it began, including at Tuesday evening’s Town Board meeting, where he sat in the audience.
Town Board members, however, led by Councilmen Denis Troy and Thomas Diviny have accused the supervisor of being high handed, autocratic and dictatorial in his approach, and of “ordering” Ott to curtail some of the events at the Masonic Fairgrounds. They also accuse Stewart of threatening Ott that if he didn’t curtail the events himself, the town would do it for him by imposing new laws and regulations governing crowd control, time limits on public events, noise, light and parking restrictions and other limitations on what could be done at the private park.
Whatever transpired between Stewart and Ott has yet to be made public. Stewart refused to make copies of his “letter” to Ott available Tuesday, although he read two carefully edited sentences from it that appeared to sound placating and cooperative. Troy and Diviny said they never saw the letter, blaming Stewart for sending it without board authorization. And Ott himself has not responded, at least publicly.
He did respond to whatever communication he had with Stewart angrily, however, sending an e-mail last week to all groups which use the fairgrounds, canceling their use of the facility this year.
That letter led to Tuesday night’s outpouring of members of the AOH, Nam Knights, Sons of Italy and other groups, furious and frustrated that their groups’ biggest fundraisers of the year had suddenly been cancelled without warning, and leaving them with no last minute alternatives. Residents noted the e-mail cancelled everything at the fairgrounds this year, including not only outside events but the town’s own summer day camp program and even Masonic events.
Nearly 20 residents angrily shouted at the Town Board, some waving Ott’s e-mail in the air, demanding to know what the town was going to do about what they termed the economic and social “disaster” they now face.
Bruce Leonard, a 50-year resident and active member of the Tappan Volunteer Fire Department was the first to attack the board, reading from a blistering letter his department had authorized which called the town’s action “dangerous and alarming.” The fire department depends on the Noble Ninth for support and gets it every time, Leonard shouted to wild applause from the partisan audience of nearly 150 angry residents. Kurt Ott is one of their best friends and supporters, Leonard said, demanding the board immediately reverse any thought of imposing restrictions on public events at the Masonic fairgrounds. “Kurt supports the entire community and this entire community supports Kurt,” Leonard concluded.
A spokesman for the Blauvelt Sons of Italy chapter was the next to lace into the council, demanding to know why the board had forced Ott to cancel their Italian fest, as he waved the cancellation e-mail in the air. The Sons of Italy strongly supports Ott and the Masons, the man shouted, calling them good neighbors for decades and ardent supporters of all organizations that fight for community betterment.
Charles Marchand of the Nam Knights said his veterans group has held a party at the Masonic fairgrounds for the past seven years and never had a problem. He and the Masons obey every town police and building regulation, county health regulations and any other restrictions imposed on them and provide their own security.
Nick Spraga of the Sons of Italy was equally as supportive of Ott and the Masons, noting they allow his group, the Shriners, the firemen and the AOH to all use their grounds at no cost to Orangetown. Like the Nam Knights, Spraga said the SOI also provides their own security and has never had a problem. The Masons have been there for 135 years and have always been a good neighbor, he insisted, noting that the West Shore Railroad trains which pass by 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, make a lot more noise going past the fairgrounds than any event at those grounds, and yet the town does nothing to quiet the railroad.
Like other speakers, Spraga also directly blamed Stewart’s letter to Ott for creating the current predicament, and called on him to rescind it as soon as possible. Fellow SOI member Denis Julie said he has been an area realtor for37 years, and called the Masonic fairgrounds a “vital asset” to Tappan and Orangetown.
Another Sons of Italy member claimed their festival draws 40,000 to 50,000 visitors annually, “and we’ve never had a problem.” There have only been two ambulance calls that entire time, both for very minor incidents, and there has never been a need for police intervention in seven years.
Tappan resident and SOI member Paul Borgesi said he has been working the Italian festival for three years and has never seen a problem. The noise has been lessened, and the only noises to be heard lately are “sounds of joy” from people having a good time at the festival. “Some people just like to complain,” he concluded, to a standing ovation.
Fairgrounds neighbor Richard Pew said he enjoys all of the festivals held near his home, and attends them all. They are fun, enjoyable, and they bring in revenue to both the town and to local merchants, Pew asserted, again to a standing ovation from the partisan crowd.
Jerry Vedechio of the Sons of Italy called the security at that event “excellent,” noting that they meet regularly with police, firemen, ambulance corpsmen and other officials, and have both a pre-event briefing and a de-briefing afterward, to make sure any problems get promptly corrected.
After residents spoke, Town Board members had their turn at the microphone, unanimously blaming Stewart for creating the incident.
“You poured gasoline on the fire,” Troy shouted at the Democratic supervisor, referring to the letter he sent to Ott after getting the petition from neighbors. Troy said he spoke with Ott and “tried to calm things down” and “put things back the way they used to be, when everyone got along.”
When Stewart objected to Troy’s accusations, the Republican councilman demanded that the supervisor “back out” of all negotiations regarding the Masonic fairgrounds, and allow the council to do all negotiating for the town.
Council members Diviny and Paul Valentine, also Republicans, agreed, saying they had good relationships with Ott and the Masons, and the only problems began when Stewart sent his unauthorized letter to the Masonic leader.
“The Italians got it right,” Valentine asserted. “We should all learn from them and do it the same way.”
“You made a mistake, admit it,” Diviny shouted at Stewart. He then told the supervisor he should have no further contact with Ott or the Masons for fear of further alienating them and making matters even worse.
“Let the Town Board handle this matter,” Diviny continued. “He (Ott) obviously doesn’t want to talk to you. Let us handle it.”
Some in the audience appeared confused at the sudden outburst of anger between the GOP council and the Democratic supervisor, and between the audience and the board.
Waving the e-mail she received from Ott, Louise Gervino of Blauvelt said she wasn’t as concerned about the cancellation of the festivals as she was that Ott had also cancelled Orangetown’s own summer day camp for children at the fairgrounds. She depends on sending her son there while she works summers, Gervino said, asking rhetorically why the town apparently sabotaged that possibility this summer, and what the town was going to do to correct it by finding a new location, or an agreement with Ott to allow it there.
Former Councilwoman Eileen Larkin of Palisades urged the board to create a large fairgrounds on the hundreds of acres of land it owns at the former Rockland Psychiatric Center in Orangeburg, and hold such events there, where they are no neighbors to complain about noise, lights, parking and other problems.
Dave Copperman of Tappan said he has lived by the fairgrounds all of his 42 years, and has seen the problems grow worse every year lately, especially from a management point of view.
SOI member Robert Chipereno tried to calm the riled waters by offering to help resolve the dispute instead of seeing it escalate, and offered to mediate between the town and the Masons.
With none of the combating parties able to come to any agreement by the end of the evening, Stewart tried his own hand at peacemaking, but with little success.
He made a motion to have the entire Town Board meet with Ott to iron out their differences, inviting “peacemakers” from the public or from the involved organizations to join at the session if they are interested.
Council members objected to Stewart’s presence, however, saying that would only inflame matters more. They refused to second the motion until they instructed Stewart to personally stay away from the meeting. Without getting a specific answer from the supervisor as to whether or not he intended to abide by that restriction, they eventually approved the resolution unanimously, but with obvious misgivings.
No date was set for any further meetings on the subject, but Troy, Diviny and Valentine said after the session ended that they would take it upon themselves to meet with Ott, without Stewart if at all possible.
Neither Stewart nor Ott commented after the meeting, the supervisor going into his private office for an executive session with the council and Ott leaving hand-in-hand with his audience supporters, smiling broadly as he left the chambers.