Ramapo Turns Against Developer Co-Defendant After Plaintiffs Produce Site Inspection Report Showing Evidence of Illegal Apartments
During a dramatic two days of hearings last week before Judge William A. Kelly in New York Supreme Court, the developer of the beleaguered Viola Estates Condominium was issued an immediate stop work order by its codefendant, the Town of Ramapo Building Department, Matzav.com has learned exclusively. The sale of any existing units is also on hold at least until the developer has a modified site plan approved by the planning board, whose next meeting is not scheduled until December.
The turnabout – until last week’s hearings, the town staunchly supported the developer’s actions – came after a blistering presentation by plaintiffs’ counsel, Steven N. Mogel, of the results of a court-ordered site inspection of the property.
“Until this inspection,” Mr. Mogel said, “we only believed that illegal additional apartments were being built in this development. Now we know – they are already there.”
He then opened an easel and presented picture after picture, blown up from the inspection report, showing separate boilers and heating units, separate plumbing and separate electric panels – all clearly marked for separate apartments in the townhouse units. Accessory apartments are illegal in the zone in which the development is built.
The developer’s counsel, Joseph Haspel, attempted to defend. “In my own house,” he said, “I have three electric panels, not counting my barn.” Judge Kelly appeared unconvinced. “In your house,” he shot back to Mr. Haspel, “are they also marked for separate apartments?”
But Mr. Mogel did not stop there. He produced a series of pictures showing an additional kitchen installed where the plans showed a walk-in closet. Mr. Mogel explained that this new Pesach kitchen is needed since the Pesach kitchen called for on the plans was now the primary kitchen for the additional apartment. The builder apparently made no attempt to hide the switch from walk-in closet to kitchen: studs are marked “Pesach kit,” “stove” and “sink,” and what was supposed to be a closet has gas, hot and cold water lines and a plumbing drain.
“Although I’m reluctant to use the term in a civil action,” Mr. Mogel said, citing what he deemed were material misstatements made by the developer in his building permit application and condominium offering plan, “ but this is a fraud committed on the town, the neighbors and the Attorney General.”
The report was even more ominous. “Several observations suggest,” it stated, “that, in addition to the illegal apartments that have been installed on the first floor of each townhouse, additional illegal apartments are planned.” The report then detailed how at least two additional apartments are being prepared in the basement and on the first floor.
Mr. Haspel attempted to deflect the argument that the town was doing nothing while the developer overbuilt. He stressed that there were ongoing meetings with the town, and that the developer agreed to return to the planning board even before the site inspection occurred. Judge Kelly asked the town’s counsel, Michael Specht, whether the town required work to stop until then. Mr. Specht said he wasn’t sure, whereupon the judge gave him one day to find out. That night, the deputy building inspector issued a stop work order, citing the findings in the site inspection report.
In court the next day, Mr. Haspel tried to argue that the order only restrains work that clearly deviates from the plan. However, Mr. Specht again went against his co-defendant and said that the order restrains all work, even exterior landscaping.
Mr. Mogel thought the stop work order didn’t go far enough, considering what he again claimed was the evidence of fraud in this case. “It’s encouraging that the town issued a stop work order,” he said. “But what they should have done is revoked his building permit.”
While Viola’s future is now uncertain, its short-term horizon is bleak. Without a single unit sold, the project essentially has to be mothballed until the town and the developer can figure a way out of the current mess. And the Attorney General will have to weigh in, not to mention some other potentially interested parties: representatives of both the county and the district attorney’s office attended last week’s hearings.
The neighbors, on the other hand, are cautiously optimistic. “We always thought the system was rigged,” one neighbor told Matzav.com, citing how the town refused their requests to halt the project once evidence of illegal overbuilding became apparent last spring. “The town could have stopped this before. Either they never looked at the site, or more likely they looked and turned a blind eye. But we didn’t give up.
“Going to court was our last resort – we asked the developer not to build additional apartments, but he absolutely refused. The judge did the right thing. We got our own guys to inspect and put the facts clearly before not only the town, but also the court. It ultimately forced the town to act to stop this insanity.
“Still, we’ll be watching their next steps,” the neighbor continued. “The town’s old business-as-usual, rubber-stamping, wait-til-it’s-too-late approach won’t work in this case. As the lawyer indicated, this was a fraud. We’re ready to continue this if necessary.”