By Rockland County Executive Ed Day
A couple of years ago, I put a small addition onto my house so I could expand my kitchen.
Before I did, I applied for and received a permit from my town, hired licensed contractors and, when it was just about done, had the work – plumbing, electrical, construction – inspected and approved by my municipality.
In short, I followed the rules. I knew that there were requirements I was expected to follow for my safety, the safety of my family, my neighbors, the community at large and, in the event of an emergency, first-responders.
Most of us follow the rules when we want to build or make changes on our property.
Most of us, but, unfortunately, not all of us.
Once again, we are dealing with what I call the cart-before-the-horse approach to building.
This time, as it so often does, it involves a school and young children.
An organization opened a school for more than 300 very young girls in Chestnut Ridge.
They did so without asking for village or county approval, without even applying for permits, without getting approval for renovations, without hooking up a fire alarm system, without checking for hazardous material.
In short, they opened a school without taking any of the steps that I or any other homeowner is expected to take when doing a small home improvement process, like expanding a kitchen.
Neighbors reported seeing school buses coming and going from the property, which was supposedly vacant. They complained and both the village and county investigated. That was the only way any officials even knew that 300 young children were at this long-unoccupied property.
I have made it a cornerstone of my administration to enforce rules fairly, including the rules contained in the Rockland County Sanitary code. My motto is equal treatment for all, special preference for none.
We have gone all over the county to make sure that the code is enforced. In April, we went to a home in Haverstraw Village to announce the year-long results of the Rockland Codes Initiative. We chose that house on South Street because it had the largest fine: more than $41,000.
Last year we received almost 1,200 complaints. We issued 6,574 violations – a third of them critical, life-threatening and assessed nearly $1.5 million in fines.
In September we went to a commercial property in Valley Cottage to announce that we were starting foreclosure proceedings on non-residential properties that failed to pay back taxes. We chose that property because it had the biggest unpaid tax bill.
And last spring after we had been asking the state for years to allow us to inspect some of the private schools that open without permits, without approvals and without regard to safety, we were finally allowed to do so.
Our fire inspectors led by Gordon Wren, director of Fire and Emergency Services, began inspecting private schools that had repeatedly failed to file fire safety reports.
We weren’t too surprised by what we found – many had serious safety violations.
As a result and in short order all schools filed safety reports.
We thought the message had been received loud and clear: you cannot just open an school anywhere you want without regard to safety.
But apparently that message was not received by the operators of this school in Chestnut Ridge.
These operators initially blocked our inspectors from doing their job. We had to threaten to go to court to get a search warrant before they relented.
What did we find? Deteriorating asbestos in a closet adjacent to a classroom.
We also found a furnished dormitory ready for occupancy. Only one problem: no permit for that use.
School officials made it as difficult as possible for our inspectors to do their job. And when we informed them that we had found asbestos adjacent to a classroom, they responded by telling us that they had done their own inspection and concluded that everything was fine.
For the record, it does not work that way with my administration. We will aggressively seek every legal redress from the courts in protection of health and safety. I’ve said it before: it is abhorrent and shocking that people in charge of children would allow this to happen.
I stand by those words and our Department of Health will seek any and all allowable legal remedies.
Remember: Equal treatment for all. Special preference for none. We all must abide by the rule of law.