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Attorney Says Traffic Issues Take Back Seat To Religious Group’s Right To Practice Religion
By Tina Traster
Like a gunslinger coming out with a show of force, the attorney representing an applicant who wants to build a girl’s Yeshiva on at 31-41 West Clarkstown Road in New City, opened with the right of religious organizations to build even if it is a traffic burden to the community when he spoke at the Clarkstown Planning Board last week.
“The traffic issues need to be addressed,” said Ira Emanuel, who is representing the applicant. But the attorney said traffic issues take a back seat to a religious group’s right to practice its faith and it is the town’s responsibility to find a solution to mitigate the traffic.
The board, along with a large audience that came out to speak about the project, understood Emanuel’s veiled allusion to RLUPA (Religious Land Use & Institutionalized Person’s Act) cases, which, as the attorney said, “apply different standards” and give greater deference to a group’s rights to worship or teach.
The application, which has been before the board since 2018, elicited a large crowd because West Clarkstown Road, and surrounding streets, are under great strain with current and proposed development.
The applicant Congregation Kollel Lomdei Shas in Spring Valley, which wants to develop the property under the name 31 W. Clarkstown LLC, plans to demolish two single-family homes, combine the lots, and construct a 37,455 square-foot private school for 600 student (K-8) and 50 parking spaces on 6.6 acres of R-40 zoned land. The plan also calls for at least 15 school buses. Schools are a permitted use in R-40 zones.
The hearing, which began after 10 pm on Wednesday, and was curtailed to a discussion between the developer and the board, as well as limited public comment from public officials in or running for office, focused entirely on traffic. Specifically, on the ingress and egress of the site onto West Clarkstown Road and what impact it would have on New Hempstead Road and the entrance to the Palisades Parkway.
The entire hour-long discussion focused on potential traffic impact.
The developer of the proposed school, which hired The Multi Group of Companies to conduct a traffic study, told the Planning Board that the study showed the proposed school would have no significant impact on traffic. Rabbi Eliyahu Rokowsky, the Executive Director of the Bais Yaakov Elementary School in Chestnut Ridge, said they were basing their presumptions on that school’s student body and their traffic habits collected over the past decade at a “sister school” to the proposed all-girls school in New City.
“There is no traffic on Route 45 in the morning in Chestnut Ridge,” said Rokowsky. “No backup. Zero.”
Rokowsky said at least 90 percent of students will ride buses rather than be driven by car. He told the board that mainly kindergarten-age children are dropped off by their parents or guardians car-pooling in about 30 cars. He estimated some 15 buses holding up to 72 students would arrive at staggered arrival and departure times between the morning rush from 7:45 to 8:30 am and the 4:15 to 5 pm dismissals.
The applicant said additional traffic on West Clarkstown Road would not make the already difficult traffic conditions there “more than 10 percent worse.”
The applicant did not add a specific tally for visitors or for deliveries to the school’s cafeteria.
Board Chairman Gil Heim and member Phillip DeGaetano showed an obvious degree of disbelief when told the school would not adversely impact traffic. Rokowsky invited board members to witness traffic patterns around his existing school in Chestnut Ridge.
Developers seeking to build new projects (schools, sub-divisions, senior housing), particularly in residential areas, acknowledge traffic is an issue but they almost always argue that incremental impacts from their projects on traffic will not have a significant adverse impact.
The methodology developers use is as follows: (1) establish a base line either now or in the recent past that represents normal and existing traffic flow at a particular intersection or road; (2) then compare what would happen in the future if their project was not built (normal traffic growth patterns) to what the traffic will look like if and when their project is built (normal growth patterns plus their incremental traffic).
If the result “build” versus “no build” traffic is essentially the same or within some pre-defined parameters, then the project has no “significant impact” on traffic. If the results show a “significant impact” then the developer introduces mitigating options (usually changing the timing on traffic lights or adding a turn lane or staggering school bus hours) so that its project is acceptable. The 31-41 developer has proposed the first and third options.
The scale used by traffic consultants is basically grading – A through F, also called Level of Service (LOS) grading. Ratings of “A” are the best. Ratings of “E” and “F” are the worst. Not every municipality defines “significant impact” but some municipalities, including Clarkstown, define a “significant adverse impact” as one that rates D or worse where the proposed project increases traffic delays by 10% or more. Even if a Level of Service goes from D to E or E to F, if the margin of worsening is less than 10%, the impact is not considered significant.
For some kinds of development, traffic consultants rely on data from published manuals on traffic generation, for example for warehouses and fulfillment centers. But when there is no published data to rely on, the planning board must rely on the developer’s representations or test them for accuracy.
Board member Streitman noted “there is a lot of gray data.”
The Planning Board must consider one application at a time but community members who are turning out in big numbers are vocal about their worries over at least six development projects pending on the mostly residential byway that is also County Road 35A, which connects New Hempstead Road and New Clarkstown Road, on the western edge of Clarkstown bordering the Town of Ramapo.
In May, the Planning Board granted preliminary site plan approval for the demolition of the existing L’Dor Assisted Living Facility at 156 West Clarkstown Road without discussing the impact of traffic on the road as a whole. L’Dor plans to construct a new 40-unit, two-story replacement property.
The most visible site that would undergo transformation is the former Champion Day Camp site at 175 West Clarkstown Road, which had most recently been operating as Camp Merockdim, an Orthodox Jewish day camp. Rockland County developer Gabe (Gavriel) Alexander is under contract to buy the 9-acre parcel in New City.
The next hearing on 31-41 has been set for Oct. 20th.