The builder of Viola Estates stealthily built space for illegal accessory apartments in the basements and upper floors of townhouses contrary to site plans approved by the Ramapo Planning Board, an attorney for neighbors told a judge on Thursday.
The neighbors want the judge to close down construction of the 44-home development after they say an on-site inspection report they commissioned found unapproved space for accessory apartments, evidenced by separate multiple plumbing, gas and electrical systems, separate water heaters and boilers.
The three-story buildings contain two townhouses per building.
Attorney Steve Mogel, representing the neighbors, provided Supreme Court Justice William Kelly with photos of the added space, facilities and other evidence to support the neighbors’ contentions that the building plans had been changed, including showing “walk-in closets” that actually are constructed as extra kitchens.
He spoke about three separate entrances to the units with three door bells, along with additional meters for utilities.
Mogel said the neighbors cannot depend on Ramapo officials to ensure the builder follows the rules, noting the building has ties to Ramapo Chief Building Inspector Anthony Mallia, who is under indictment on 100 felony charges involving his relationship with builders and contractors.
Mogel said the developer touted accessory apartments in advertising the townhouses and in plans filed with the state Attorney General’s Office. The attorney general is involved because the property was once owned by a religious congregation and the office oversees such sales.
Mogel asked Kelly to stop construction, arguing that once the complex is completed and people move in the issue would be more difficult to address.
“We know there are illegal apartments,” Mogel told Kelly. “It’s a fraud. They are doubling density, at least. We cannot depend on the town to do the right thing. We need you, your honor.”
Attorney Joseph Haspel, representing developer Ephraim Grossman and Viola Gardens LLC, said the judge can’t act on speculation that open basements are really meant for additional apartments. He said the extra door bells and electrical panels are not unusual.
Haspel told Kelly the town has not issued certificates of occupancy for the buildings and no one has moved into the townhouses.
He said the developer and builder have agreed to go before the Ramapo Planning Board to seek revised plans and correct any problems cited by inspectors, and seek variances if necessary.
He said the owner will sign documents attesting there will not be any accessory apartments placed in the basements or in each townhouse.
“All the plaintiffs have is conjecture,” he said. “There are no accessory apartments. We’re fighting over nothing.”
Hapsel and co-counsel Barry Kantrowitz told Kelly that he can’t issue an injunction because of claims something may happen in the future.
Kelly adjourned the hearing until Friday, when Ramapo town deputy attorney Michael Specht will report back on whether the town plans to seek a stop-work order against the builder and developer.
Haspel said no foundation construction work is being done right now, but some cosmetic work on the buildings is ongoing. He estimated 10 of the 20 buildings have been mostly completed.
The Viola Estates development has been opposed by the Orthodox Jewish homeowners who own single-family homes on Viola Road across from Ramapo High School.
The former Temple Beth El property was originally zoned for single-family homes, allowing 1.74 units per acre.
The Ramapo Town Board, at the developer’s request, changed the zone to multiple family housing, permitting eight units per acre in July 2013.
The change allowed for 44 units in 20 three-floor townhouses squeezed into the 5.5 acres next door to the former synagogue building and parking lot.
The neighbors’ legal action names as defendants Mallia, Supervisor Christopher St. Lawrence, and Grossman and other officials.
Development builder Shimmy Galanduer, a campaign contributor to St. Lawrence, also built the $200,000 extension to Mallia’s Airmont house, according to Airmont village records.
The house’s asking sale price is now $1.29 million.