When he arrived at the Motty's Supermarket fire in Monsey shortly after noon on Feb. 18, the swirling snow was the least of Monsey Fire Chief Andrew Schlissel's problems.
The fire had a head start and — as is too often the case in Ramapo, where code-enforcement lacks teeth — the building had secrets.
Over the years, owners had built out the structure without filing required permits or seeking certificates of occupancy. Decades of violations had been chronicled by inspectors, but little was done to remedy the issues. Fire crews couldn't see the two shipping containers that had been added to the back of the original store.
Adam Gordon, a former Monsey chief and now its second assistant chief, worked the fire command post with Schlissel, joined by Rockland Emergency Service Coordinator Chris Kear.
"It was one of the worst buildings I've seen, just addition after addition," Kear said. "Cargo containers, modules, everything."
One firefighter described the layout as a backward question mark, a building that twisted and turned in the smoke and flame. Even standing outside, the acrid smoke created blackout conditions. The flames only worsened, gorging on paper goods, flammable home products, and other supermarket staples.
Inside the burning building at 19 Main St., Monsey firefighter Aaron Lerer said he and about eight other firefighters aggressively tried knocking down the flames on what firefighters call a "push," going on the offensive.
But the market's aisles were narrow and difficult for the Monsey and Tallman firefighters to navigate. And things weren't what they appeared to be: What they thought was the ceiling was actually a drop ceiling, with fire raging above.
“The farther you went into the building, the less visibility you had,” said Lerer, 35, a volunteer firefighter for more than half his life.
There were no windows or doors inside. No sprinklers were working to douse the flames and help the firefighters. They soon found themselves surrounded.
“When we felt we were making progress, the flames came back at us from behind,” Lerer said. “It was an old building and burned faster.”
As conditions worsened, Schlissel and Kear conferred and Schlissel made the call to evacuate. They would settle for a defensive posture, what firefighters call "surround and drown."
A Ramapo supermarket racked up dozens of building violations and then the fire struck
Tania Savayan, Rockland/Westchester Journal News
Moments later, after all were out safe, the roof collapsed.
Thirty-four days before the fatal fire at the Evergreen Court Home for Adults, which took the life of Spring Valley Fire Lt. Jared Lloyd and an elderly resident, Rockland County had averted disaster.
The Evergreen Court and Motty's fires differed from a firefighting standpoint.
Lloyd, a volunteer, had risked everything and, tragically, lost everything, to save an untold number of people. Despite low water pressure and hydrants that gave them little water to fight the fire, he and other first responders pulled 112 elderly residents to safety.
In Monsey, firefighters were in harm's way to save a structure.
“It’s a miracle no one was killed,” one retired fire official said.
The Motty's fire underscored a longstanding problem in Ramapo, where rogue construction runs rampant and lax enforcement makes it seem like Dodge City.
The town's hierarchy — from assistant town attorney prosecutors to the supervisor's office to the town judges — appears to have little appetite to level the harsh fines that are available to them as a deterrent, up to $5,000 per violation per day.
Montal vs. Metro-North
Motty's Supermarket was a hodgepodge of buildings that had for decades — the first known violation was issued in 1979 — run afoul of fire and code-enforcement inspectors and had drawn the ire of Metro-North Railroad. Its owners had paid some fines but, as recently as last August, hadn't repaired the building.
Photos from August 2020 show shipping containers lashed together, electrical cords snaking out from under the eaves, cardboard boxes and debris everywhere, and buildings placed on paved-over railroad property.
When railroad lawyers cried foul last November — three months before the fire — and advised Motty's owner to remove the structures from the railroad property, the owner went to Ramapo Town Hall.
Rather than looking at the long list of building and fire-code violations and telling the owner to fix his building, remedy the violations and end the encroachment, Mona Montal, Ramapo's purchasing director and Supervisor Michael Specht's chief of staff, picked up the phone and told the railroad to back off.
The town had a license to use the property, Montal said.
Yes, Metro-North acknowledged, the railroad had granted a 2011 license for Ramapo to use its right-of-way. But that was for a pedestrian or bicycle path, not for a neighbor to pave over and erect buildings on.
The buildings were still there on Feb. 18, 2021, when the fire raged. And the wreckage of the buildings remains. Now the railroad is worried about those who might be injured in the debris left on its land.
The involvement of Montal — who is also chair of the Ramapo Democratic Committee — on behalf of a private business, which Specht said he endorsed, is the kind of decision that has longtime Ramapo watchers repeating their constant refrain: That's Ramapo for you.
Everyone knew Motty's
Everyone knew Motty’s.
Local members of the orthodox Jewish community knew it as a kosher produce market that would extend credit to its poorer patrons.
Specht called Motty's "a long-established, locally owned neighborhood small business with a history of providing charitable food donations within the town."
Ramapo fire and building inspectors, including Chief Inspector Ian Smith, knew Motty's because they had issued dozens of citations, violations and summonses to owner Abraham Klein, for infractions dating to June 19, 1979: building without a permit; use without a certificate of occupancy; uncovered electrical outlets; improper use of extension cords; improper storage of trailers.
Though Klein sold Motty's in 2012 to the Spring Valley-based KGLL trust, which lists Yoel Klein as trustee, the violations continued.
Metro-North knew Motty’s as a trespassing neighbor, one that took over a former railroad station building generations ago and morphed it, addition by non-permitted addition, into a ramshackle building encroaching on its property.
Even Google knew about Motty’s. Its satellite maps still show the warren of slapdash buildings on the railroad land.
Fire officials and activists knew Motty’s as something else: a potential death trap in plain sight.
Building code enforcement is so lax in the Town of Ramapo — with violations being written, summons issued, minuscule fines levied and court cases adjourned and then dropped — it has some members of the county’s all-volunteer firefighting force wondering what one official asked directly, a question that is no longer rhetorical:
“How many more body bags do we need to prove the point?”
Decades of violations go unaddressed
If Google's satellites could see the creep of Motty's expansion from space, Ramapo's inspectors had been taking more painstaking and terrestrial views for decades and finding problem after unaddressed problem at 19 Main.
What emerges in a review of decades of annual inspection reports is a pattern of disregard and defiance, year after year: In 1985, owner Klein was ordered to appear in town court for illegal parking and storage of a truck trailer; in 1991, failure to submit a fire-safety application; in 2000 and 2004, construction without a permit.
On Feb. 12, 1997, inspector Tony Picarello cited a laundry list of 21 violations, including an improperly closed electric box under the circuit breakers; improperly wired track lighting; an improperly mounted light fixture in a bathroom; lack of emergency shut-off for both furnaces; a too-short flue vent; combustibles stored against the building.
Picarello also instructed the owner to "obtain a building permit for new construction."
About a decade later, on Jan. 4, 2006, inspector Thomas Buckley turned up nearly a dozen items: a loose electric box; numerous extension cords, including a cord through a wall; a double-keyed cylinder exit door and missing door handle; a broken emergency light; open electric wires behind the produce refrigerator; shipping trailers using space heaters for heat; a storage shed lit by light bulbs on extension cords.
"Much of the building is constructed of shipping containers and a wood shed constructed without building permits," Buckley wrote. "Clean up site."
In October 2009, Buckley was back with a similarly long list of violations and once again noted buildings and storage without site plans. He added "insufficient exits."
On May 23, 2012, Klein sold 19 Main to KGLL Trust, but inspectors continued to show up each year, filling clipboards with violations.
Car rental company in the back room?
In April 2014, Ramapo code enforcement officer Peter Muzzi found Mark Friedman in one of those non-permitted buildings behind Motty's, a structure that had been turned into an office. Friedman told Muzzi he was the manager for the Impres Rent A Car car rental business that was operating at 19 Main.
According to Muzzi's affidavit: "When I advised Mr. Friedman that this business has been posted in violation in the past, he responded, 'I thought that everything had been cleared up.'"
Friedman was cited for operating a car rental business without an appropriate certificate of occupancy. He was fined $1,000 by Ramapo Judge Alan Simon, who would later be disbarred, only to be elected Spring Valley mayor, a post he still holds.
'No excuse' for the building to operate
Gordon Wren Jr., a former Hillcrest fire chief and the retired county fire coordinator, said Specht and the building and fire inspectors are lucky they are not mourning the death of firefighters.
“There’s no excuse in 2021 for a complex like this to be allowed to operate,” Wren said. “This property posed a danger to customers, employees and firefighters. It’s a miracle no was killed.”
Wren said firefighters have complained for years about Ramapo’s lax enforcement and its allowing properties in violation of fire, safety and zoning codes to remain open. He said the town’s prosecution of violations has been weak and the judges don’t take a hard line with heavy fines to deter violators like other town judges across the county.
“This is an outrageous abuse of code and public safety,” Wren said. “Unfortunately, it's become the norm in Ramapo. I challenge Supervisor Specht and his building and fire inspectors to discuss the violations in public. This is an outrageous violation of the public trust.”
Justin Schwartz, chairman of the Rockland Illegal Housing Task Force and Non-Public Schools, a member of the fire police, put it more bluntly.
“How many more body bags do we need to prove the point?” he asked.
Schwartz believes the same lack of enforcement in Spring Valley resulted in two deaths at Evergreen Court: Lloyd and a male resident whose identity has yet to be released.
The Journal News/lohud has sought building department and inspection records for Evergreen Court through the Freedom of Information Law. The documents — the files of land-use agencies, including blueprints, building plans and inspection reports — would show the upkeep, violations and permits at the 200-bed assisted living facility.
Spring Valley Mayor Simon, who handles FOIL requests, referred questions about the documents to Rockland District Attorney Thomas Walsh, who does not comment on active investigations.
Deputy Village Attorney Jeffrey Millman said, “There is an active investigation, and I’m not authorized to release any documents.”
'Adjourn, adjourn, adjourn'
Several people with inside knowledge of the inspection and court process in Ramapo — how it works and how it is supposed to work — would not speak with The Journal News/lohud, saying they feared retribution against them and their families for speaking out.
Bob Burton is not one of them.
Burton, a Tallman firefighter who is a member of the Illegal Housing Task Force, has been a regular court-watcher in Ramapo Town Court long enough to identify a pattern.
“They have a one-word vocabulary in the Ramapo Court and it’s called ‘adjourn,’" Burton said. "It's adjourn, adjourn, adjourn, minor fines and they get away with it. It’s ridiculous."
"I just spoke to one ex-judge who told me he was asked many times 'don't prosecute that one, don't prosecute that one.' So they adjourn them and they come back a couple of weeks later, find the violation was rectified, case dismissed," he said. "The thing is that 99% of these are LLC's (limited liability corporations) and go try and find an owner."
It doesn't have to be that way, Burton said.
The town code permits the levying of staggering fines, up to $5,000 a day per violation. But prosecutors don't push for anything near that level of penalty and judges don't press for details beyond the facts that are presented to them, Burton said.
It amounts to don't-ask-don't-tell: In the case of Motty's, prosecutors appear to ping-pong from one violation to the next, sending notice after notice, from violation to appearance ticket to summons -- without bringing the full case file into open court to demonstrate a pattern of defiance. The fines are paid, but the remedies are not made.
"Any fine that was ever levied was so minute you can write it off as the cost of doing business," Burton said. "It doesn't mean anything. 'OK, I got a fine of $1,000. OK, no problem.' Doesn't mean a thing. They build what they want, where they want, how they want, when they want, and nobody bothers them."
Burton, who bears the frustrations of years of watching violations go by the boards in the Ramapo court, said he knows what it will take to bring change to a broken system.
"The solution is to get somebody honest in there and crack down on them," he said. "And when the inspectors do their inspections and they issue the fines, have the judges not dismiss it so readily. They say 'follow the money,' but if you take the money away from them, they won't do it again. But nobody's got the guts to do it."
According to court records, Motty's last faced a Ramapo judge on Jan. 7, 2019, and paid a $1,200 fine for building without a permit.
And, 19 months later, a Metro-North official's photos documented the sorry state of 19 Main, with shoddy buildings, debris and extension cords. The fine was paid, but the violating behavior remained.
Ramapo Town Judge David Fried, who levied that 2019 fine, said: “As a judge, I’m not ethically permitted to comment on any cases that are before the court."
Justice Rhoda Schoenberger did not return a phone call seeking comment.
Three months after that January 2019 fine, KGLL was again cited for lack of a certificate of occupancy and construction without a building permit. Klein was ordered to appear on June 17, 2019 at 11 a.m.
In July, the complaint was withdrawn by the prosecutor, court records show.
If Ramapo is willing to kick the can down the road and not compel adherence to code, Motty's neighbor was not.
The sprawling compound wasn't just a hodgepodge and an eyesore. To Metro-North it was a clear case of trespassing. The railroad owns a ribbon of land through Monsey that is its right-of-way. Motty's sprawl had blown through the line and was nearly across the entire right-of-way.
In a Nov. 4, 2020 letter, Metro-North lawyer Jordan Johnston took Motty's to task.
"You have been using property in Monsey, New York owned by Metro-North Commuter Railroad Company ('Metro-North') without permission," he wrote. "There is an asphalt parking lot, vehicles, and various structures, including a large metal shipping container located on the Railroad Property, which are owned and/or used by your company. Metro-North demands that you immediately cease using and trespassing on the Railroad Property."
That's when Montal got on the phone.
A disputed license
Asked why the town did not intervene to take action against Motty's, Specht, the supervisor, said the town has no "lawful basis to shut down the store" over the "allegation that the store placed storage containers on a neighboring property."
He said violation notices were issued followed by summonses, and mentioned the $1,200 fine.
As for Metro-North, Specht said that in 2011, the railroad "gave the Town of Ramapo a written license agreement to use/occupy the site and that a survey from that time depicts the storage trailers on the licensed site."
It was during the administration of his predecessor as supervisor, Christopher St. Lawrence, that "10 years previously, had advised Motty's that there was no objection to their then use of the site," Specht said.
Meredith Daniels, a spokesperson for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Metro-North's parent company, said the fire didn't change the facts on the ground.
"This trespass onto Metro-North's property is not only illegal but unsafe," she said. "The business owner needs to promptly get his debris off railroad property and in the meantime, we are exploring all legal options to protect the public interest."
While Specht was OK with Motty's use of the railroad's land, his code-enforcement officers — at the other end of Ramapo Town Hall — were still writing violation notices.
In August 2018, Muzzi wrote up the owner for lacking a certificate of occupancy and lack of a building permit, the case that ended eight months later with that $1,200 fine.
But tucked inside that complaint was a line that wasn't raised in Fried's courtroom: "This addition was located on the south side of the existing building without the benefit of a building permit and may be encroaching into the rail road easement."
When KGLL paid the fine, there was no mention of the encroachment.
As late as Sept. 10, 2020, code enforcement officer Vinny Castiglione wrote up KGLL Trust for a "site maintenance" violation. His field notes read: "I observed storage containers located in unapproved location."
The fire hasn't ended the dispute. The railroad continues to press Klein to remove debris and structures from its property and, in a third notice sent April 15 to Klein and to the town, expressly prohibits any rebuilding on the property.
"Metro-North is prepared to take legal action against you to protect our interests, including pursuing recovery of any and all damages as a result of your unlawful trespass and the fire. Please forward this letter to your insurance company."
An 'inconceivable' situation
Assemblyman Ken Zebrowski made illegal housing a key issue in his unsuccessful run for Rockland County district attorney in 2019.
“It’s inconceivable to me somebody can build an entire structure and pave over large portions of land owned by a major public authority and nobody does anything about it,” he said.
“Thankfully, that day we had two fire officials who had the foresight to save lives,” he said. “Had that not happened we may have been looking at other deaths in the county. A fire can break out at any of these illegal structures at any moment."
Zebrowski said the willful violation of fire and safety codes and the lack of a tough response by the town is frustrating.
“We identify these properties, we talk about the importance, but it seems like until there is a fire, it’s not taken seriously until there’s a death," he said. "There are reasons the regulations exist to prevent catastrophes and prevent loss of human life.”
Back in business
Motty's Supermarket wasn't closed for long.
The February fire took place on a Thursday. By the following Monday, Feb. 22, Motty's had set up shop in a storefront that's part of the Lifeplex complex at College Road and Route 59, next to the Sport-o-Rama skating rink.
Specht confirmed that five weeks later, on March 29, a town inspector showed up at the new location — and cited Motty's for these violations: operating without a building permit; violating a stop-work order; lacking a certificate of occupancy.
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