When Peggy Nikolopoulos and her husband moved from Middletown into a new, four-bedroom, Colonial-style house in the Woodbury Junction development two years ago, she expected that to be their last stop: a dream home in a gated community where the couple could set down roots.
But a recent ownership change has made Nikolopoulos and other Woodbury Junction residents anxious about the future of their fledgling community.
A Brooklyn developer bought the bulk of the undeveloped housing lots in the stalled, 451-home project in February and has since scooped up more, with plans to acquire all 353 empty lots and resume construction. Now, future homes in what has been renamed “Woodbury Villas” are being marketed in Yiddish to Hasidic families in nearby Kiryas Joel. A parade of prospective buyers cruises through the development on Sundays to browse for existing homes, and residents have fielded – and in some cases, accepted – unsolicited offers for their houses.
The uncertain transition at Woodbury Junction is one of several dramas playing out in the area surrounding Kiryas Joel, each seemingly connected to the growing Hasidic community’s quest for homes. Couples and investors from Kiryas Joel and Brooklyn have bought dozens of houses in South Blooming Grove and Woodbury in the past year, prompting a rapid turnover in some neighborhoods.
In Monroe, developers with pending housing projects have sparred with the Town Board over a building moratorium the board imposed in April, pressing in vain for waivers so they could proceed with construction.
And last month, the Orange County Legislature was presented with a petition signed by 2,240 people to create a new Town of North Monroe, which would consist of Kiryas Joel and 382 additional acres. The land that would be joined with the Hasidic village and detached from the Town of Monroe largely falls within the 507-acre territory that property owners had petitioned for Kiryas Joel to annex from Monroe in 2013, thus far without success.
There are two opposing views of what to make of all this. Kiryas Joel leaders call the quest for homes outside their village a population “overflow,” brought on by a shortage of building space in Kiryas Joel and exacerbated by thwarted efforts to expand the village.
From their standpoint, the annexation impasse, which began with the filing of two lawsuits a year ago, has forced a migration that causes conflict and inconveniences on both sides. They are now touting the proposal for a new town as a solution that would temper the Hasidic community’s need for homes in neighboring towns, lower tensions and let them tend to their community’s unique needs.
Village Administrator Gedalye Szegedin, in an emailed statement to the Times Herald-Record, called the proposal “the most practical and reasonable solution to resolving a long standing issue in our region, recognizing the different needs of both communities, and allowing each community to coexist in peace and harmony.”
Critics dismiss the North Monroe proposal as another expansion plan in a new guise, and accuse Kiryas Joel’s leaders of courting “overflow” publicity to stoke fears and further their aims.
“I think a lot of this p.r. is fear-mongering by the KJ government,” said Emily Convers, chairwoman of the United Monroe citizens group.
Her organization led opposition to Kiryas Joel’s expansion efforts and brought one of two court challenges against a 164-acre annexation that the Monroe Town Board approved, effectively suspending it until the litigation concludes. From her standpoint, the integration of neighborhoods outside the village as Hasidic families have moved in is an indication of a healthy society, not something that political leaders should exploit and cast in a negative light.
“I don’t think you should be using one culture as a weapon against another,” Convers said.
No one disputes the underlying demographic realty: the rapid growth of an insular community with big families and constant housing demand, a need so predictable it can be matched with annual marriage licenses. Kiryas Joel had an estimated 23,000 people living in its 1.1 square miles last year, and was projected to grow by about 20,000 people over the next 10 years. What was unknown then, and now, is how many new people would be living in Kiryas Joel and how many would live in neighboring towns or even farther afield, based on housing availability.
That question was probed during the annexation debate and likely will be rehashed as county lawmakers weigh the Town of North Monroe petition, along with such issues as zoning control and the impact of future growth in southeastern Orange County.
The recent home turnover and development plans outside Kiryas Joel will add another element to that debate, about the merits of integration and the complexity that a separatist community like Kiryas Joel adds to that conventional American value. There is also a question about whether the developments now pending in the towns surrounding Kiryas Joel could serve its growing population as a constellation of satellites, a possibility that was largely absent from the previous debate.
After 20 months of heated public debate, the Monroe Town Board voted in September 2015 to approve a 164-acre expansion of Kiryas Joel and reject one for 507 acres. Within a month, two lawsuits had been filed – one by Preserve Hudson Valley, the nonprofit arm of United Monroe, and another by a coalition of municipalities and the Orange County government – to challenge the approved annexation and the environmental review Kiryas Joel had done for both petitions. Kiryas Joel, meanwhile, asked an appeals court to approve the 507-acre annexation request.
All of those cases are still pending. A state Supreme Court judge overseeing the two annexation challenges issued an injunction last year that has prevented Kiryas Joel from taking control of the 164-acre annexation land until a decision is rendered, keeping intact Monroe’s zoning and jurisdiction for those properties.
Attorneys filed final papers in those cases months ago and are awaiting a ruling. The Appellate Division has appointed referees to hear Kiryas Joel’s case, but no further action appears to have been taken.
In the year since the lawsuits were filed, a turnover that already had begun in the Worley Heights neighborhood in South Blooming Grove sharply accelerated, prompting an outcry as residents were inundated with unsolicited offers for their homes.
Property records show that more than 60 houses have changed hands since last November in Worley Heights and the adjacent Capital Hill neighborhood. In similar fashion, buyers from Kiryas Joel and Brooklyn have snapped up more than 40 homes in the pricier Country Crossing development in Woodbury since July 2015, a trend that began months before the annexation vote and ensuing litigation.
In Monroe, developers with longstanding housing plans have sought exemptions from a moratorium the Town Board imposed earlier this year to pause construction while it updates the town’s comprehensive plan and zoning. One of those pending projects is the 181-home Smith Farm development off Gilbert Street, which got conditional final approval in August 2015. The Smith Farm developer clear-cut the property later that year, setting off a neighborhood outcry.
Attorneys for the project later argued in a petition to the Town Board that the moratorium it imposed was part of “abroader stratagem to assuage vitriolic local opposition to Hasidic property owners and the developments they propose,” without saying outright that Smith Farm is being built for Hasidic families. Steven Barshov, a Manhattan attorney who represents the developers of both the Smith Farm project and a a 600-home proposal in South Blooming Grove, said in an interview that both developments “will be marketed to the general public, but also to the place where the demand is strongest, which is in the Hasidic community.” Barshov, who also represented the group that led the annexation drive, said both projects were bound to proceed regardless of how the annexation push turned out, which weakens the idea that the annexation impasse fueled those developments.
Kiryas Joel, which was incorporated in 1977, has gotten increasingly congested and apartment prices have risen as development space has grown scarce and builders have erected housing at greater density to maximize use of available land.
More than 1,000 units are under construction or in planning stages, according to village officials, and another 1,500 homes are now reportedly being planning for a 70-acre peninsula of Kiryas Joel that previously had been unavailable for development.
That number of units can accommodate housing demand for less than a decade, according to projections the village used in its studies for the annexation request.
One Kiryas Joel native who moved out of the village nine years ago attributes the recent home-buying push to the same lifestyle choice that motivated him, rather than the lack of available apartments in Kiryas Joel or the stalled annexation effort. David Falkowitz, a 39-year-old father of four who has a graphic design business, said he and his wife were living in an apartment and wanted more privacy and the sort of greenery and open space that could only be found in the area outside Kiryas Joel.
He said they looked at many houses within walking distance to a synagogue before settling on a quiet, dead-end road in Woodbury.
“Many people are just looking for the nice, quiet, scenic life,” Falkowitz said.
With the recent influx in Woodbury, Mayor Michael Queenan said he has gotten some complaints about aggressive solicitation, increased school-bus traffic and the eruv that is now erected in Country Crossing, a string that is attached to the tops of utility poles to extend the area in which Orthodox Jews can walk on the Sabbath.
Queenan said village officials have tried to be accommodating so that the two cultures can co-exist. “I think it’s just an adjustment period,” he said.
He doubts the creation of a Town of North Monroe will diminish Hasidic families’ interest in living in Woodbury. “The people who are buying homes in Woodbury don’t want to buy homes in KJ,” he said.
“I’m not sure their getting that land will make any difference. I think people will still want to buy homes in Woodbury.” He also expects his village’s ongoing conflicts with Kiryas Joel over zoning and other issues would continue if the new town is formed. “I think we’re still going to have the same problems with the KJ government that we have today,” he said.
County lawmakers are expected to take up soon the petition for the Town of North Monroe, which requires they do a new environmental review to consider the future growth of that proposed town and the potential impact on water and sewer use, traffic and other factors.
Ultimately, the Legislature must vote whether to approve the petition. If supported by a super-majority vote, or at least 14 of 21 lawmakers, the petition would then go to Monroe voters in a townwide referendum, to take place as early as November 2017.
Szegedin argues the purpose of forming a new town is “to help create peace among two communities with differing needs.” For the Hasidic community, that means living near religious schools, synagogues, ritual baths and kosher food stores.
“Many members of our community do not drive,” he said, “and as such need access to sidewalks, street lights and other community amenities that the Town of Monroe does not currently have, and does not plan to provide in the future.” Women in the Satmar Hasidic community don’t drive, and men can’t drive on Saturdays and many religious holidays, which puts a premium on proximity, as well as buses and taxis.
Asked if he supports creating a Town of North Monroe, Monroe Supervisor Harley Doles said his main goal is preventing Monroe-Woodbury School District from becoming “the East Ramapo of tomorrow.” He was referring to the Rockland County school district that is bitterly split between families whose children attend the schools and the Orthodox Jewish population that dominates the school board elections, even though its children go to yeshivas. By invoking East Ramapo,
Doles means that Monroe-Woodbury will face similar clashes over school spending and programs if more and more Hasidic families move into the district instead of an expanded Kiryas Joel School District.
“It will change how our children are raised, it will change the value of our homes, it will change the taxes that we pay,” he said.
The specter of East Ramapo also loomed in the annexation debate. Leaders of the Kiryas Joel School District offered then to enlarge the district’s borders to match those of an expanded village, meaning that current and future residents of the annexed area would vote in Kiryas Joel school elections rather than Monroe-Woodbury’s. That border change could be made through an agreement with Monroe-Woodbury leaders, and it was proposed as a way to allay fears of replicating East Ramapo and to build support outside Kiryas Joel for the annexation proposals.
That same offer may now be marshaled in support of creating a new town with Kiryas Joel in it. Kiryas Joel officials have said that they would seek to expand the Kiryas Joel School District borders, along with those of the village itself and its fire district, to match those of the Town of North Monroe, if the county Legislature and Monroe voters approve its creation. Altering the school district borders would mean that current and future property owners of the 382 acres outside Kiryas Joel would vote in Kiryas Joel school elections and pay taxes to that district rather than Monroe-Woodbury.
Doles’ warnings about “the East Ramapo of tomorrow” assumes that the Hasidic voting population in Monroe-Woodbury eventually could grow large enough to control elections, and that it would vote in opposition to the interests of the rest of the district. Monroe-Woodbury buses 234 kids living within its borders to yeshivas in and around Kiryas Joel this school year, and has pending applications for another 217 children with similar requests, according to Monroe-Woodbury officials. The district currently has about 23,000 registered voters.
Convers contends the proposed town creation is another attempt by Kiryas Joel to control more land, and that it was important for Monroe to maintain its zoning and prevent overdevelopment. She argues the Legislature should reject the Town of North Monroe proposal and recognize that it contradicts the nearly unanimous decision lawmakers made last year to join a court fight against the annexation approval.
She said she would love for Kiryas Joel to become a separate town or city and no longer play a role in Monroe town elections, but not with the additional land that is involved in the North Monroe proposal. “It’s not enough of a compromise when you’re taking 400 acres with you,” she said.
Regardless of how that proposal plays out, at least some of the development projects being planned outside Kiryas Joel appear destined to move forward, given the vast amounts invested in them. Brooklyn developer George Kaufman and his business partners paid $35.5 million in February to buy 327 undeveloped lots in Woodbury Junction, and they shelled out $3.6 million in August for another 17 lots, according to county property records. Woodbury recently granted Kaufman permission to build roads in preparation to resume the construction of homes, which had stalled long before residents learned more than a year ago about the impending ownership change.
Woodbury Junction residents had battled with the original developer over the poor maintenance of the roads and undeveloped areas, the non-functioning front gate and a host of other problems and unfulfilled commitments.
Today, they are pressing the new owners to resolve some of those same issues, while contending with the new uncertainty about the development. Some are torn about whether to stay or sell the newly built houses they bought so recently, and suspect that only Hasidic buyers may now be interested in buying them. Nikolopoulos and her husband, to the surprise of her neighbors, recently installed a pool. They plan to stay.
Nikolopoulos, a retired New York City police officer, said that no one has asked yet to buy her house, and that she would only consider an offer that was higher than what she paid.
“I just want to live in my house,” she said. “If people want to move in, fine. But I don’t like the idea of people being pushed out.”