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SULLIVAN COUNTY COURT Judge Burton Ledina ruled on Wednesday that Congregation Bais Trana has three more days to evacuate the former Homowack Lodge in Phillipsport
Homowack must evacuate
By Dan Hust
MONTICELLO Sullivan County Court Judge Burton Ledina ruled on Wednesday that Congregation Bais Trana has three more days to evacuate the former Homowack Lodge in Phillipsport.
Though the judge could not comment yesterday, a transcript of Wednesday’s hearing indicated the need to notify parents/guardians to make supervisory and housing arrangements for their children at the camp convinced Ledina to extend the deadline to this Sunday at 5 p.m. It was originally set for yesterday at 5 p.m.
On Tuesday, Ledina listened to NYS Assistant Attorney General G. Nicholas Garin and Monticello attorney Perry Meltzer argue whether or not an immediate danger existed to the Hasidic resortgoers and the affiliated girls camp.
Garin objected to Ledina’s ruling, while Meltzer pushed for Monday, but the judge chose Sunday.
However, he also issued new rules, requiring all doors of unoccupied areas be locked/chained, the pool be closed to access, and the main kitchen stop being used to prepare food. The kitchen has evidence of extensive mold, and Garin called it “one of the most dangerous places in the whole facility.”
Garin, representing the state Department of Health (DOH), and Meltzer, representing camp operator Congregation Bais Trana, called witnesses to speak about the health, safety and sanitary conditions of the old resort.
The first witness, Brian Devine, Regional Environmental Health Director for DOH, testified that after an oil spill was discovered on the property July 9, he paid eight visits to what is now known as Machne Bnos Square over the course of the month.
His most recent visit was an official inspection tour on Monday with various DOH and Town of Mamakating officials, including a videographer and photographer.
The 18-minute video was displayed in the courtroom, with Devine explaining the various scenes showing missing or moldy ceiling tiles, fire doors that didn’t close correctly or were left open, missing sprinklers, trash left lying around supposedly unoccupied areas, water damage in various spots, non-functional exit signs, broken windows, water on and in electrical boxes, and a moldy wall in the main kitchen, which is actively used.
At one point, said Devine, the inspectors were told to leave the premises but were then allowed to inspect only the occupied areas of the resort.
Photographic evidence was presented by the DOH, as well, allegedly illustrating a submerged and thus possibly contaminated drinking water well, a hole in a fire door where the doorknob should be, exit doors propped open with chairs and exposed wires.
Upon questioning by Meltzer, Devine admitted that he did not see anyone in the allegedly unoccupied portions of the building, even though he did note signs of recent activity.
He also acknowledged that nearly half a dozen loads of trash were being removed from the basement, and while the fire alarm system was not functional that day, someone was working on the alarm equipment.
That man was Peretz Klein of Spring Valley, who has owned a fire alarm business in Rockland County for three decades. He testified Tuesday that he has maintained the Homowack’s alarm system for the past three years, including changing “almost 100” smoke detectors at the beginning of July.
He stated that the fire alarm system is now functional. It ties in to a central command station in Queens, which relays calls to emergency responders.
Klein said the electrical box with water in it that Devine witnessed contained sprinkler system wires that only carry voltage if there is a short, thus presenting no danger of electrocution.
Noting that he has installed fire alarms at more than half a dozen camps in Sullivan County, plus senior housing in Wurtsboro and the Newburgh Egg Corporation in Woodridge, Klein stated he believes the Homowack’s system is “safer than a lot of camps’.”
Under questioning from Garin, however, he did admit that “troubles” have given him and his company cause to return to the resort several times in July.
Meltzer then called Joel Chaim, a downstate fire sprinkler business owner, to the stand, who testified that the Homowack complex was not winterized properly last year, leading to broken fittings and a damaged sprinkler system.
He affirmed that the system which dates back to the early ’60s is now operating properly, though only in the two buildings housing occupants. However, that does not include the kitchen, where workers have been preparing meals amidst moldy walls.
The next witness, Solomon Brody, spoke to those issues of mold, saying he had inspected the occupied buildings and installed an air-scrubbing machine to remove mold spores, especially in the basement.
The results of air tests he also conducted have yet to be received from the laboratory, but he estimated the mold will be eliminated within 2-4 weeks.
Meltzer also planned to call the owner of Ross Electric in Liberty to testify, but he could not make it.
“Mr. Ross will testify the various hanging wires [noted by DOH] are not live wires,” Meltzer told Ledina.
“There is not an immediate danger to the campers,” Meltzer concluded, asking the judge to let the matter be resolved at a DOH commissioner’s hearing set for Monday (and another one for next Thursday).
Garin, however, said the remediation work hadn’t even begun until the middle of July and that dangers continue to exist.
“It isn’t fit for habitation,” he told Ledina.
“It is apparent to me the TRO [temporary restraining order] should be granted,” Ledina concurred. “There is ample proof there is a danger to the inhabitants of the camp, particularly the children.”
Meltzer asked that the camp which currently houses about 120 children, plus a few dozen family members be given two weeks to evacuate, while Garin pushed for 24 hours. Ledina eventually settled on approximately 48 hours, with the deadline set for last night at 5 p.m.
On Wednesday, Mamakating Supervisor Bob Fiore, who attended the hearing, expressed relief.
“I am happy with the outcome because it will remove people from a dangerous situation,” he remarked.
The owners of the Homowack now also face formal charges from the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation stemming from the July 9 oil spill.
They were arraigned this week in Town of Mamakating Court on six charges.
One was a violation for allegedly allowing contaminated soil from a similar 2007 oil spill to remain on the property.
The other five were misdemeanor charges: failure to register a petroleum bulk storage tank, operating an allegedly unmaintained sewage disposal facility, burying waste on site, failing to report July's oil spill and letting the oil spill onto a public highway.
The charges carry a maximum combined fine of more than $115,000, and the matter is scheduled to be heard in court on October 6.
dan hust | democrat
The former Homowack Lodge in Phillipsport is not fit for habitation, according to County Court Judge Burton Ledina.