Ramapo views Jehovah's Witnesses development plan

The Journal News, New York/March 26, 2009

Rampo - The Jehovah's Witnesses are planning an administration and residential complex off Silver Mine Road where about 850 people would live and work.

The 248-acre site was intended to become an active-senior development, but the builder, Lorterdan Properties at Ramapo, sold the site in February to the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York. Advertisement

A deed filed at the Rockland County Clerk's Office on Feb. 13 showed that the society paid $11.5 million.

The society plans to move many of its administrative offices from Brooklyn, where it has overseen its worldwide operations for 100 years.

As proposed, the plan would disturb about 50 percent less of the property than Lorterdan intended, and would have less of an impact on traffic because residents would work there, Richard Devine, a Watchtower spokes-man, said yesterday.

The relocation would place the volunteer workers closer to the organization's printing operations in Ulster County.

"And it's not too far from the airports," Devine said, "and our staff does travel a lot."

The potential of a religious organization on the site worried Theresa Davis, who lives opposite the property on Sterling Mine Road.

"Is this going to be tax exempt?" Davis asked. "What else can Rockland County afford? How many organizations can we afford to have in Rockland County?"

Ramapo Assessor Scott Shedler said Watchtower had applied for a religious-use exemption, but no decision had been made.

Davis also was concerned about the project's visual impact, specifically wanting buffers to shield it from Silver Mine Road.

"When I bought my house, the property was zoned for residential housing," Davis said. "It's not fair to people living in the area to change it."

Devine said the Watchtower plan reduced development of sloped areas of the property, an issue of environmentalists wanting to preserve an unblemished ridgeline.

As proposed, no school-age children would live there, and Watchtower was prepared to donate to the fire district to pay for equipment purchases.

Ramapo's planning consultants, Frederick P. Clark Associates of Rye, found in part that the absence of school-age children made the impact similar to Lorterdan's plan.

In a report to the town this month, the consultants also stated that while the Watchtower plan would have less of an environmental impact by halving the disturbed area, "the intensity of development on the disturbed area is increased."

Instead of housing on 292 lots, town records showed that Watchtower's plan included an office and worship building, a service building with a central kitchen, dining room, laundry, storage and infirmary, and residential buildings.

Two maintenance shops are proposed.

Lorterdan had owned the property since 2002, and in 2005 it received the zoning for the senior development.

Watchtower is seeking an amendment to the zoning law to permit construction of a "monastery" subject to a permit from the Town Board.

As defined in the proposed amendment, a monastery would be a "planned development of buildings for integrated living, working and worshiping arrangements." Schools would not be included.

Before the Town Board rules, it likely will seek a recommendation from the Planning Board, said Alan Simon, the town's planning and zoning administrator.

A public hearing will be held by the Planning Board before it makes its recommendation.

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