Overdevelopment meeting severely overcrowded
By Joe Kuhn
For the first time in years, the Rockland County Legislature had to turn citizens away from one of their regularly scheduled meetings. There was simply no place to put them all.
The crowd that gathered for Tuesday’s meeting wrapped all the way around the building and the chamber itself was standing room only. Hundreds of citizens had come to voice their opinion on a series of resolutions the Legislature was scheduled to discuss; both resolutions were set to address accusations of anti-Semitism in Rockland and neither were voted on.
Referral 9272 would have thanked New York State Attorney General Letitia James for her swift condemnation of a “despicable” political ad released by Rockland’s Republican Party, which was perceived by many as anti-Semitic. The Referral would also officially begin the process of scheduling a summit between religious and political organizations in the county in order to resolve the escalating arguments that have broken out about the enforcement of town zoning codes.
“The Legislature has failed miserably,” declared Alan Katz, a former member of the Ramapo school board, who spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting. Katz, like many other citizens, lambasted the legislators for their perceived inaction regarding overdevelopment and its effect on the county. He decried the state of the Ramapo schools and blamed members of the Hasidic community for deliberately defunding the district. His accusation was echoed by many other speakers who alleged that Hasidic residents have repeatedly voted to slash the school budget.
“Anyone who lives here should follow the law,” said one resident during a series of outbursts from the restless citizens. The unruly crowd, and many of those who signed up for official public comment, voiced extreme frustration at the “rampant” zoning violations occurring in Ramapo. Ella Hill, a handicapped woman seeking residence in Ramapo, complained of a severe lack of affordable housing in the town and even alleged that she had been denied an apartment in a complex owned by a Hasidic resident. Many speakers, including Hill, told the Legislature that they feel they’re being “pushed out” of the county by the Hasidic community.
All of these concerns were, of course, key features of the political ad condemned by the Attorney General. The ad, which endorsed County Executive Ed Day, referred to overdevelopment as “a storm,” and explicitly blamed “the Ramapo voting bloc” and Legislator Aaron Wieder for allowing such violations. Several members of the Hasidic community voiced their concern that the ad and that night’s public testimony were nothing more than thinly veiled anti-Semitism.
“I pay my taxes,” proclaimed a Hasidic citizen, who told the Legislature that he frequently suffers discrimination by a community that treats members of his religion “like leeches” ruining Rockland. Legislator Santulli was specifically signaled out for referring to Hasidism as “a perverted form of Judaism” in a Facebook post decrying overdevelopment.
Other residents spoke out in support of Santulli, who was recently the victim of harassment. Last Friday, the legislator awoke to find a “gift bag” on her property containing three rusty nails (a reference to crucifixion) and crude fliers calling Santulli a Nazi and encouraging her to commit suicide.
Legislator Aaron Wieder, who referred to the incident as an example of “free speech” during an interview with NBC4, received his own share of outrage. Community activist Michael Hull accused Wieder of “(using) religion as a pretext for outrage,” and referred to his comments as “stupidity” to NBC. Hull is one of several activists that Wieder has repeatedly and publically condemned as anti-Semitic. Legislator Santulli has called for Wieder to be censured for his recent comments, though her request did not receive the necessary support.
Though many citizens angrily accused the Legislature of failing “to do their jobs” and enforce zoning codes, Legislator Harriet Cornell was quick to point out that the crowds anger was largely misplaced. “New York is a home rule state,” said Cornell, explaining that zoning codes are decided at the village level and that the legislature does not have the authority to pass or change such laws. Cornell also explained that enforcement of those laws was the duty of the County Executive’s office and not the Legislature’s.