INFRASTRUCTURE: A FAIT ACCOMPLI IN PLAIN SIGHT

By: Rockland County Legislator Charles Falciglia – April 22, 2021

As development and proposed development continues unrestrained in Ramapo, the best way to describe the thought process of Ramapo Government regarding infrastructure to support that development is a Fait Accompli. It is one of those phrases you do not hear very often and are not always sure what it means. The general definition is:

“Something that has already been decided before those affected  hear about it, leaving them with no option but to accept it.”

In Ramapo, there is certainly a preponderance of evidence to validate that claim about the Town Council and Planning and Zoning Boards over the last two decades. In fact Ramapo usually takes it a step further. There was the arrest and guilty plea of former Town Councilman, Shmuel Tress, for voting on a zoning change on a property he had a financial interest in while he was a member of the Ramapo Zoning Board. There was the arrest and guilty plea of former Building Inspector, Anthony Mallia, for undercharging developers on building fees and the sudden resignation of former Planning Board Member and Bank President, Jose Collazo, for apparently voting on sub-division approvals on properties his bank had existing construction loans on. I guess the District Attorney’s Office declined my request to investigate the matter further after I brought it to their attention.

While the impact on infrastructure by Ramapo Government is tantamount to the same lip service federal elected officials pay to the deficit, citizen action groups such as CUPON (Citizens United to Protect our Neighborhoods) and ROSA 4 Rockland (Rockland Organized for Sustainability and Safe Aquifer) have carried the torch against multiple projects not following zoning, planning and environmental laws. Not only have they contested certain matters but they have achieved many significant reversals or modifications of decisions.

ROSA 4 Rockland successfully derailed the proposed huge Patrick Farm development. Most recently, CUPON-Hillcrest scored a victory in New York State Supreme Court as the court ruled in favor of their Article 78 against the Bluefield Extension Project for deficiencies in the application process.

The Bluefield Extension ruling cited multiple procedural failures of due process with almost every decision made by the Ramapo Planning and Zoning Boards. When you read those same failures you can quickly raise the question of exactly how some of those decisions could have been simply overlooked. It only serves to reinforce the wide-spread view that Ramapo Government is in concert with developers, incompetent or a combination thereof. To no one’s surprise the town has indicated they will appeal the ruling.

You would have to believe that Ramapo Supervisor, Michael Specht, would be humiliated by the shortcomings of his boards, until you remember that he was the attorney for those same boards for over a decade. While for years the focus has been on a monitor for the East Ramapo School District, the Ramapo Zoning and Planning Boards, if not the town itself, also need a monitor.

The Article 78 also dredged up memories of a property transfer/mortgage table flip of two properties connected to the project in 2015 involving a former Ramapo Town Councilman; highlighted in my 2017 article, “A Blue Field of Dreams.” Despite notification to the Rockland County District Attorney’s Office it appears that an investigation was never launched. There seems to be a pattern there.

So many in the public know exactly what is going on, but many do not. A Fait Accompli in Ramapo is always in plain sight as Ramapo elected officials often make a gossamer attempt to appear as if they came to their conclusions on development after spending many sleepless nights wrestling with their conscience.

One of the questions I have continually raised is as development continues at a rapid pace; sooner or later the residents are left holding the bag as the increase in population dovetails into the cost of new and increased services and taxes. So we wake up one morning a decade from now to an infrastructure job in the tens of millions dollars and a Fait Accompli materializes before our very eyes.

Rockland County Sewer District One (RCSD1) is the quintessential example. RCSD1 services in excess of two hundred thousand residents in Ramapo (Suffern excluded), Clarkstown and a small portion of Orangetown. It operates two plants, one in Orangetown and one in Hillburn. At present, the combined capacity for daily flow intake is at approximately 59 percent. While that does not seem ominous on the surface you obviously do not start building a new sewer plant when you begin approaching 100 percent capacity. Generally you start planning around the 80 percent mark. The good news is daily flow capacity for the last eight years has hovered around the same usage.

With so many projects and potential projects in Ramapo, when coupled with several current projects in Clarkstown; plus the continued conversion of single family homes to multi-family dwellings in Spring Valley and potential private school expansion, the sewer interceptors and pumps become the real area of concern. If Tartikov College comes to fruition, for example, it would overwhelm the interceptor responsible for the flow in that area, a scenario that could be repeated throughout RCSD1.

Over the last several years there also appears to be some validation to the above. In 2020 there was roughly 20 reported SSO’s (Sanitary Sewer Overflows), which is the discharge of untreated sewage into the environment, for an estimated 13,000 gallons in the Village of Airmont and surrounding area alone. These are just the reported SSO’s and do not include the majority of Ramapo or the remainder of RCSD1.

Now to be fair, breakdowns and repairs are a cost of doing business, particularly with an operation the size of RCSD1; and when it comes to development RCSD1 has done a good job of making developers upgrade the interceptors at their cost as opposed to the rate-payers footing the bill. The question remains at what point does the cost of doing business rise above and beyond the cost of doing business?

There is additionally another Fait Accompli. The cost of doing business often requires borrowing and RCSD1 currently has more than an exorbitant amount of outstanding bonds, at least 250 million as of March 31, 2021. Yes, you read that right, one-quarter of one billion dollars! When you factor that in with the current cost of repairs and potential future costs, offset by the current reserve, the same above question can be posed in a different light; are revenues lagging behind the real cost of doing business.

If local governments in RCSD1 are not going to control growth and ignore the impact on infrastructure, environment and quality of life than RCSD1 needs to become more proactive and have a larger voice in managing growth. At the very least I would recommend RCSD1 look into assessing a separate fee to developers on every housing unit built, specifically escrowing and investing those funds to offset the future cost of construction of a new facility or a major upgrade to an existing one. RCSD1 can also issue a moratorium on hook-ups. There also needs to be a more aggressive plan to reduce the debt and avoid taking on any more debt at this time.