On Point with Tina Traster: Ramah Tries To Bite The Apple Twice With Zoning Application

By Tina Traster

You may remember, back in July, the Clarkstown ZBA overwhelmingly voted down an application from Camp Ramah in Valley Cottage to extend the use of its premises from six months to year-round.

And then, to the displeasure of hundreds of residents who live along Christian Herald Road, where the camp is located, and Mountainview Avenue, the attorney representing the camp, Ira Emanuel, filed again for the defeated application to be heard.

On Monday Oct. 29, the ZBA allowed the attorney to make a half-hour presentation, and then denied 100 citizens the right to participate. Instead, the ZBA tabled the application until Nov. 19, saying Clarkstown had hired “outside” counsel (likely because it expects Ramah to file a RLUIPA suit). RLUIPA is a federal discrimination suit based on religion.

The real question is ‘Should the ZBA have heard this application at all?’

A simple reading of the application demonstrates that Ramah is seeking the exact same relief it had been denied. Under New York law, Zoning Board decisions are final and can only be appealed to a court. Applicants are not entitled to a second bite of the apple. That said, it might have been prudent for the ZBA to hear the application, just in case it really was different.

In both applications – the one that was denied and the one brought anew – Ramah sought to modify the special permit it has to operate a six-month facility to one that runs all year long. In three public hearings leading to the denial hundreds of residents objected to a year-round facility because of safety and traffic on narrow mountain roads. Opponents of the applications spread to Mountainview Avenue and to Upper Nyack because the entire neighborhood is under siege from traffic and development pressures. 

Unfortunately, discourse on this controversy has at times turned ugly. Those who support the camp have suggested that opponents are anti-Semitic. Nothing could be more false or perverted. Everyone loves the camp, and no one objects to its warm-weather use. The objections stem from the practicality of those who live here in the winter and understand the dangers of the mountain passes. In addition, Clarkstown in 2016 passed a law to protect roads like Christian Herald from non-residential use.

During the first application process, it so happened that Rockland Country Day School’s International students were using the dorms year-round, illegally for six years. They have since been relocated. Now, Emanuel argues the application is different because this time those sleeping in the beds will be people who come to the camp for retreats. During the July hearing, town counsel Leslie Kahn told the ZBA that it could not place restrictions on those who rented the beds.

It is not the ZBA’s mandate to decide who uses the facility. Their responsibility is to decide whether or when it is used. The reason Camp Ramah has to come before the ZBA is because it is not allowed to legally use the buildings in the winter. That was the relief it was seeking and still is.

A side-by-side look at the denied application and the “new” one shows that what they really are seeking is a “use variance.” This is a high burden for most any applicant. Essentially they want to change the camp to a convention center, as opposed to a dormitory operating in a residential zone. The case belongs in front of the town council.

Residents have an expectation that a final decision is final, and that they won’t have to return to the ZBA every few months to re-litigate the same application. That’s the law in New York, but we’ll see what happens on Nov. 19.