BY TINA TRASTER
Camp Ramah has been a beloved day-camp in the Town of Clarkstown for more than a half century. Neighbors on Christian Herald and Mountainview Avenue are accustomed to the summer bustle of children and counselors moving back and forth on the road but balked this spring when the camp attempted to turn itself into a full-time, year-round dormitory for an unspecified population of “students.”
On Monday night, the Zoning Board of Appeals voted six to one to deny Ramah, which is owned by The Jewish Theological Seminary, a request to expand their use from a day camp with counselor housing and weekend retreats from April to November into a year-round boarding facility. (ZBA member Mark Maraia was the only one who voted in favor but he did not say why).
In 2016, the Town of Clarkstown rebooted its zoning codes to protect what remains of the residential and suburban character of the town. Dormitories are prohibited on “collector roads”, or designated town roads. Christian Herald, an undulating, mountainous road, is designated as such.
From 2012 through 2018, Ramah illegally rented dormitory space to roughly 20 Rockland Country Day School (RCDS) foreign students during the academic school years. A kitchen fire in the dormitory in 2012 prompted a Notice of Violation from the Town compelling the camp to seek year-round approval from the Town. Although, the camp justified RCDS’s tenancy on the basis of a “special permit” it received from Clarkstown in 2009, that permit only allowed for the overnight housing of camp counselors and staff between April 1st and November 1st. In its new application, Ramah sought to remove the date restrictions, but ignored the fact that it never had permission to rent its camp dormitories to outsiders in the first place. The illegal rental of the dorm space to RCDS continued for six years, right through last year.
At the ZBA meeting Monday night Chairman Kevin Hobbs crystalized the issue at the outset when he read the terms of the special permit, which revealed the camp only had the right to rent to their counselors and staff. Ramah’s attorney tried to wriggle around the issue by saying the words of the special permit had been written by “layman” and the board should infer that they had a broader right. The board didn’t buy that
The public hearing lasted three and a half hours, and was filled with passionate testimony. ZBA board member Darcy Casteleiro pointed out the board had previously suggested to Ramah they ask for a “carve-out” to continue to allow RCDS students to be housed but Ramah turned that down because it wanted broad license to rent at least 72 beds to any entity.
Prior to Monday night, Camp Ramah had twice asked for continuances on the application. On two prior meetings, nearly 100 residents each time flooded the chambers and voiced strong objection to the camp’s expanded use, expressing concern about additional burden and compromised safety on the roads, and to the vicinity around Nyack High School across the street from the camp.
On Monday night, representatives of the camp, RCDS, Jewish Rabbis, and others expressed their support for the camp. Some said the camp needs revenue to support its operations but the camp had never submitted financial documentation to support that. Others tried to assert that residents’ objections were based on antisemitism but board members and residents who spoke strongly rebuked those accusations and shut down those who tried to divert the issue from zoning.
The final moments of the ZBA meeting rivaled a good television drama. At first Hobbs attempted to continue the meeting but met with objections. Then lawyers left the chambers and went behind closed doors to hammer out something, without success. Ultimately the board understood it had a responsibility to rule on the application before them. Six to one they denied this special application.
It was a painful choice for many but they made the right one because it upholds the spirit of Clarkstown’s zoning law. They could not have made a better decision because Clarkstown residents know the town is under siege from the threat of development and politicians are very unpredictable. The ZBA should be commended for its ruling, which was sound, legal, and apolitical.