Skverer Camp Risking Fatal Disaster, Fire Chief Says


homowackVictor Whitman of The Times Herald-Record reports: The man who blew the whistle on dangers inside the former Homowack Lodge calls the conditions in the resort “a deathtrap waiting to happen” and says the state and town response to a standoff with a Hasidic sect has been beyond weak. Summitville fire Chief Tim Koestler said Friday he’s horrified that men, women and children were still in the resort.The state Department of Health gave the property owners and a religious camp nearly two weeks to fix code violations or leave voluntarily, then allowed them to defy a deadline and remain another week in spite of a state order to vacate.

A Hasidic Skver-sect based in the Rockland County Village of New Square owns the properties. Deeds recently were transferred from Ulster Mountain LLC and Ulster River LLC to the Congregation Ahavas Chaverim Gemilas Chesed, which has a Monsey address.

Town and county officials say the groups are the same but the property was transferred to a congregation to seek a tax exemption. The congregation this winter filed for a 100 percent tax exemption as a religious group, a request that was rejected by the Town of Mamakating assessor and board of assessment review.

The owners almost lost their property for failing to pay property taxes in 2007 and 2008 and are now on a tax installment plan with the county.

County Treasurer Ira Cohen estimates the group also owes more than $100,000 in hotel occupancy taxes for two years. If this bill isn’t soon resolved, the county could seize the property and begin selling off the assets, Cohen said.
Koestler, a plumbing and heating contractor, says conditions are so unsafe that the camp operator, Congregation Bais Trana, should have been evacuated July 7. On that day, he and town officials toured the buildings after the camp opened without a permit. All the girls were gathered in the indoor tennis courts and wore dust masks because of mold.

“You could literally take your hand and scrape the mold off the walls in the basement,” he said.

Conditions were so obviously a danger and a firetrap, he said, that no competent code inspector or health official could dispute the need for an immediate evacuation.

Even if the Health Department ultimately forces them out, Koestler said the state, the Town of Mamakating supervisor and code enforcement officer have put at risk some 265 girls and 35 families for weeks by failing to act more aggressively.

“I like to point my finger right at the town and the state,” he said. “If you or I did something like this, we would be closed up. It seems nothing is being done.”

As of Friday, an unknown number of girls and families were still staying at the resort, now known as Machne Bnos Square. The congregation defied a Monday deadline to leave.

Town Supervisor Bob Fiore recently said some people have left and others were going. The town periodically checks on progress, but has deferred enforcement to the Health Department. He couldn’t be reached Friday.

“We are still reviewing our legal options,” Health Department spokesman Jeffrey Hammond said Friday. “There is not going to be anything new over the weekend.”

Koestler said state and town officials have known about the dangers for at least two years, but have done little or no follow-up to ensure the camp complied and brought the hotel up to code.

State and town officials and the chief and assistant chief of the Summitville Fire Department met in September with Dov Goldman, a man representing the ownership group. Numerous violations were discussed.

“I am tired of beating a dead horse there,” Koestler said. “There is enough work in that building to keep 10 crews of men busy for two years.”

The girls are staying in two three-story buildings connected to the complex and indoor tennis courts. Hallway fire door exits were padlocked or blocked. Some doors don’t open all the way.

Large holes in the walls and ceilings can make a fire jump more quickly through the buildings, Koestler said, while electrical and plumbing violations could spark a fire. He said pervasive mold should have been enough to order an immediate evacuation.

A mikvah – a ritual bath – in the cellar also scared him. An open cistern collects rainwater. A toddler could wander down, easily fall into the pool and drown.

“It is totally open and it is full of water,” he said. “I don’t know how deep it is, but deep enough for a person to drown in.”

Koestler said he was making unannounced fire inspections to ensure the camp was doing 24-hour fire watches as required, but soon got a call from Fiore at Town Hall.

“I was asked nicely not to go back to the Homowack unless we have a fire alarm.”

{{Times Herald Record/ Newscenter}