Friday, January 06, 2017

Connecting the dots 

This new year will be profound for the Town of Monroe and Orange County. Consider:

At least one of the annexation petitions to enlarge the Village of Kiryas Joel should be decided.

That would affect Kiryas Joel and Monroe-Woodbury school districts. If the boundaries aren't changed, we may be headed toward another East Ramapo, where children go uneducated.

The Orange County Legislature has yet to decide to act on a petition to create a town of North Monroe, which would require a public referendum in November. Proponents say this would end Kiryas Joel's influence in town politics.

And then there are November's elections. Three seats on the Monroe Town Board, including supervisor, will be on the ballot. Orange County Executive Steven Neuhaus and all 21 members of the County Legislature will be there as well.

How will the KJ voting bloc affect the outcome? How will the United Monroe party affect the outcome?

What follows is an attempt to connect the dots that appear like Pokémon Go icons across the landscape

Late last year, a state Supreme Court Justice dismissed challenges from a consortium of municipalities and the non-profit group, Preserve Hudson Valley, to the annexation of 164 acres from the unincorporated portion of the Town of Monroe into the Village of Kiryas Joel. Both the consortium and Preserve Hudson Valley have appealed. 

Despite the appeal, both the Village of Kiryas Joel and the Kiryas Joel School District have moved forward, formally accepting the 164 acres and formally redrawing the school district boundary to match the village's borders.

Those actions, particularly regarding the school, don't make things so. The 146 acres are within the Monroe-Woodbury School District. 

The district expects its consultant to report later this month on the benefits and costs of agreeing to redraw the lines between itself and Kiryas Joel.

A judge has yet to rule on the proposal to annex 507 acres from the town into the village. This proposal includes the 164-acre annexation. The Monroe Town Board approved the 164-acre annexation but not the 507-acre one. The Kiryas Joel Village Board approved both.

The context for annexation is this: The population in Kiryas Joel is outgrowing the village's borders. Today there are about 47,000 residents in all of the Town of Monroe, including about 25,000 within the Village of Kiryas Joel. According to state numbers, approximately 1,300 children were born in Kiryas Joel last year.

Kiryas Joel Village Administrator Gedalye Szegedin has said that, regardless of annexation, the village's population will double within a generation.

This growth can also be seen in the purchase of homes by Hasidic families outside Kiryas Joel in Blooming Grove, particularly in the Village of South Blooming Grove, and in Woodbury. In response, the Village of South Blooming Grove approved a no-solicitation law after residents complained that people would knock on their doors and offer to buy their house on the spot.

The Monroe Town Board enacted a residential building moratorium last spring to buy time to update its comprehensive plan – a series of regulations and codes determining what, where and how it can be built, and what can't be built within the town outside of the three villages. The moratorium has since been extended. 

That action is holding at bay five residential developments.

The updated comprehensive plan is expected to address the issue of accessory apartments or "granny flats." This was a provision in the town's building code originally designed to allow older residents of Monroe to remain here by have an accessory apartment of 800 or so square feet added to a single-family home.

That provision is now being used to create "granny flats" totaling 3,000 square feet. Supervisor Harley E. Doles III has repeatedly said the provision is being used to create multi-family homes out of single-family houses, all using the original well and septic system.

The update is also expected to give the Planning Board oversight on actions by the Zoning Board of Appeals. The ZBA looks at specific issues while the Planning Board takes a broader look at impact. In other words, the ZBA sees the trees, the Planning Board the forest.

Last fall, the Monroe Town Board hired a Yonkers-based economic development consultant to market the Town of Monroe Arts & Civic Center. TMACC is a draw for downtown Monroe, but it also is a drain on finances. Councilman Mike McGinn has said the town wants to retain the building but should get out of the movie business.

The theater, a refurbished Monroe Free Library, the opening of Crystal Run Healthcare, plus the anticipated infrastructure and traffic improvements, give officials hope for a steady revitalization of the downtown area.

Town elections: Will Doles run?
Three seats on the five-person Town Board are up for re-election this November: Town Supervisor, an office now held by Doles; and two town board seats held by Democrats Gerry McQuade and Rick Colon.

Doles was elected as a Democrat but has switched to the GOP because he knew he would not secure the support of Monroe Democrats due to his rift with committee chairman Tom Kemnitz. That he switched to the GOP in this era of Trump Republicans is ironic, considering he was raised in the Progressive movement in New York City led by Rep. Bella Abzug, among others, in the 1960s and 1970s.

The question remains, however, whether he will run at all. Health issues kept him away from the office during the first several months of 2016. He has not declared what he will in November.

Doles, McQuade and Colon were elected three years ago largely based on the Kiryas Joel bloc vote. What that election demonstrated, however, was the burgeoning strength of the United Monroe movement. High voter turnout in those contests was unheard of in local politics. But it also demonstrated the political divide within the town based on which side of the Quickway one lives. 

United Monroe followed that vote with subsequent victories elsewhere, including last year's election of Tony Cardone and Mike McGinn to the town board. They also ran as Republicans.

But emergence of United Monroe has blurred political lines within the town. Colon, a Democrat, has aligned himself with Cardone and McGinn to create the consistent majority on the town board. 

What that means remains to be seen. 

Meanwhile, the KJ bloc vote has splintered. According to the Board of Elections, there are about 10,000 voters in Kiryas Joel and the election districts outside the village.

There are generally two factions: 

The Aronis, associated with Rabbi Aron Teitelbaum, represent about 60 percent of the KJ population. They own most of the land within the village.

The Zalys, associated with Rabbi Zalman Teitlebaum, which has further broken into two groups: 

• The Sheri Torah group, which is most closely associated with Zalman and has the Glenwood Girls and Boys schools and the mikvah outside of KJ. They account for about 70 percent of the Zaly group. 

• The remaining 30 percent are the B'nai Joel, follows more directly the teaching of the founder of KJ, Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum.

These two groups combined, also known as the Dissidents or Alliance, own almost all the land outside of KJ and they have proposals before the Town Planning and Zoning boards that include Rye Hill Road development.

In addition to the town races, County Executive Steve Neuhaus is up for re-election as are all 21 members of the Orange County Legislature.

Although he has not declared, attorney Michael Sussman has assembled a group of people to develop a platform should he seek the Democratic nomination. 

It is unlikely that Sussman would court the KJ bloc, but will Neuhaus?

Town of North Monroe
Last summer, residents living north of Route 17 (the Quickway) sought the County Legislature's blessing to secede from the Town of Monroe and create a separate municipality to be known as the Town of North Monroe. It would include the Village of Kiryas Joel, plus all the properties in the proposed annexations. 

What its proponents, beginning with Kiryas Joel Village Administrator Gedalye Szegedin, say is "the establishment of two separate towns would mean that the Kiryas Joel electorate would no longer vote in any of the Town of Monroe elections for its nine public offices."

When proposed in August, Szegedin said: "We agree with the many people who have suggested over the years that creating two separate towns is the most practical way to alleviate that concern. We firmly believe that this is an important step in the healing process for these two communities."

In an email exchange this week with Monroe Supervisor Harley E. Doles, Szegedin wrote: "Mr. Supervisor, please don't blame the KJ leadership for the KJ Overflow to Monroe, Woodbury and Blooming Grove. We voted to approve annexation. We voted to redraw the KJSD boundaries to be the same as the KJ village and we submitted a petition to exit from Monroe by forming North Monroe. We have done all we can to have the minimum impact on your Town. We don't want to control anyone's community, just ours."

Should the legislature approve the notion, voters living in the affected area would vote on a referendum during the general election.

What do people fear?
In a Dec. 15, 2016, article on The Forward.com, titled "How the Hasids won the battle of Bloomingburg - and everyone else lost, " writer Josh Nathan-Kaiz offered this description of a Hasidic couple looking for a new home in the Sullivan County Village of Bloomingburg:

"The couple couldn't move just anywhere. Both are members of the Satmar Hasidic group, and like all ultra-Orthodox Jews, they had special requirements: a place to pray, a place to take ritual baths, a place for their children to go to school. What's more, as followers of the grand rabbi of Satmar, they wanted to be somewhere a rebbe would be in control.

"Since 2012, Bloomingburg has been a battleground, the latest front in a multi-pronged conflict playing out across New York and New Jersey, as ultra-Orthodox communities seek room to grow. Upstate in Kiryas Joel, in the suburbs around New Square and Monsey, in Lakewood and Lawrence, and even in the heart of Brooklyn, Orthodox groups have clashed with their neighbors over expansion plans and control of local government.

"To the Orthodox and their allies, resistance to new Jewish neighbors can look like anti-Semitism. 

"To the non-Orthodox, the arrival of a Hasidic community, with its schools and its institutions and its rabbinic authority, can feel like an invasion."

The article reflected many of the same issues found in Monroe. People are fearful – and no, that is not too strong a word – about these things:

• The devaluation of their homes.

• The devaluation of their school districts.

• A rural/suburban area becoming crowded and congested.

• What happens when they are no longer part of the majority and do not have control. 

Monroe has communities that are culturally different and which have different world views.

Having survived the Holocaust and after enduring years of pogroms and anti-Semitism across the globe, the Hasidim are people who want to hold dear and to protect their own, to preserve a way of life by looking inward.

The rest of Monroe residents are people who favor a more diverse America. There seems no meeting of the minds.

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