BLOOMINGBURG – Opponents of the controversial 396-unit Hasidic development in the village and the proposed girls' school that would serve it scored a small victory Dec. 12 as the Bloomingburg planning board denied a special permit for the school and consolidation to allow school parking, as well as rejecting a temporary "clubhouse" on the development's site.
It was the first meeting in the village since summer.
Board member Ann Haenelt listened quietly during the presentations on the proposals, then simply announced after each one that she was voting no. Board member Andy Finnema was more vocal, questioning the need for the school in the first place and garnering cheers from the audience.
The meeting was held in the Bloomingburg firehouse, which is on a corner and flanked by two parcels of land: the 18,000-square-foot luxury-car garage on 1.3 acres that Learning Tree Properties hoped to convert to a 16-room private girls' school, and 11 acres that the company hoped to consolidate with the garage property to allow parking.
The firehouse filled up quickly with a total of about 200 people; inexplicably, only 20 chairs were provided for the crowd. No microphone was used during the meeting, either, leaving most of the crowd craning their heads and shouting for people to speak up. Six state troopers stood ready in case of trouble, but the scene remained calm throughout the meeting.
Casual attire was apparently the order of the day; Planning Board Chairman Russ Wood Jr. led the meeting in a hooded sweatshirt and jeans. Ken Nakdimen, the head of Black Creek Properties, was similarly attired and wearing a worn-looking baseball cap.
Nakdimen began the meeting by asking for a permit for a temporary, 3,600-square-foot "clubhouse" on the grounds of the Villages at Chestnut Ridge (VCR) development, with $10,000 put in escrow to remove it if it isn't taken down after one year. He said the four-unit "trailer system" would include office space and bathrooms, and be hooked up to the water and sewer system. When asked by a woman in the audience what it would be used for, he shrugged with his hands up. Rumors around the village and social-networking sites say it will be used as a synagogue for a proposed Hasidic community, or at the very least a school if the village denies the school proposal.
"Why do we need a temporary clubhouse for residents when there's nobody living there yet?" Finnema asked.
"When residents move in, we'd like to provide this for them," Nakdimen answered.
Resident Mike Hassler remarked that in original Chestnut Ridge plans, the clubhouse did not have to be built until the fourth phase of the development. He later provided information showing that the VCR Homeowners' Association "offering plan" requires that 104 families — within the village of Bloomingburg but outside the development — be allowed to use the community center.
Resident Marilyn Meyer demanded that the public be heard on the matter.
"I'd like my three minutes," she told Wood. "You owe me fifteen minutes by now. We pay your salaries; you work for us. How do we fit into all this seeing as we'll be footing the bill?"
Haenelt made the motion to not approve the clubhouse, and board member Joseph Roe seconded it. Finnema agreed; Wood was the sole dissenter.
Next up was consolidation of the land for the proposed school. Residents questioned why 11 acres would be needed for parking, and if there would be a tax benefit to the owners, of whom Shalom Lamm is the principal. The smaller parcel is in the NBD (neighborhood business district) zone, while the larger one shares an NBD and R1 (residential) zone. Schools are allowed by special permit in both zones according to village attorney John Kelly.
"Why are we looking to lower his tax burden?" shouted one resident, holding up a sheaf of papers listing back taxes owed by Lamm and his subsidiaries. "Let Lamm pay his taxes before he gets any courtesy from the taxpayers of this town!"
Kelly said he believed the zoning would not change, nor would the taxes. Haenelt then voted to deny the consolidation, Finnema seconded the motion, and Roe concurred. Wood again disagreed.
A resolution to approve the school site plan was last on the agenda. Holly Roche of the Rural Community Coalition criticized the board for not releasing the resolution three days in advance, as required by state law; in fact, it appeared some board members were seeing it for the first time.
"Reading it at the meeting doesn't count, John," resident Lesleigh Weinstein said. "You're an attorney; you know that."
"No, he doesn't," Roche retorted, followed by much laughter in the crowd.
The atmosphere became serious as Finnema began peppering Learning Tree representative Thomas Olley with questions on the school.
"Why do we need another school in Bloomingburg?" he asked Olley, who was sporting a Grinch Christmas tie.
"The applicant has identified a need in the area," Olley explained. "He'd like to build a school to serve the girls in this area." He waffled when pressed if the school was just for the Chestnut Ridge development.
Finnema didn't give up. "Listen, we all pay taxes to the Pine Bush School District," he continued. "If this is a community that's been incorporated into this village, that anybody here can buy a unit, then they can go to Pine Bush School District. I don't see a need for the school."
Haenelt said, "I'm just voting no on this." Finnema seconded the motion, and Roe agreed.
"I'm a 'nay' on this [motion]," Wood said, disagreeing with the vote. "I think it should've went to the next step and we had a public hearing."
Olley said later that his client would evaluate what steps they could take at this point.
Finnema said he cast his vote in light of suspicions he had that the VCR housing was being marketed deceptively.
"I grew up here, in this village," he said. "I worked on that farm when it was the Albert Meier place. It was the Clover Bloom Farm."
As far as development, "I'm in favor if it's done on the 'up and up,' and up to code," Finnema added.
"Now I'm going to get death threats on my lawn," he told this reporter as he walked away. "I'm scared, really."