Catskills Standoff Over Rundown Camp

Arson? Investigators believe a fire that destroyed a building on the site the Svker Hasidic sect’s
Catskills summer camp was deliberatetly set. The sect has defied a New York State Health
Department order to evacuate the camp for numerous health and safety violations.
Tod Westlake, Shawangunk Journal
Arson? Investigators believe a fire that destroyed a building on the site the Svker Hasidic sect’s Catskills summer camp was deliberatetly set. The sect has defied a New York State Health Department order to evacuate the camp for numerous health and safety violations.

By Rebecca Dube

Published July 29, 2009, issue of August 07, 2009.

A standoff is simmering at a summer camp run by a Hasidic sect that is defying a mandatory “Order to Evacuate” issued by New York State for numerous safety violations.

Homowack Lodge, located in Sullivan County, N.Y., about 70 miles northwest of New York City, was once a premier Borscht Belt resort. Like so many other Catskills-area resorts past their glory days, it fell into disrepair, only to gain new life in 2007 as a girls’ summer camp operated by Congregation Bais Trana, a Skver Hasidic group based in Rockland County, N.Y.

But the camp has been troubled ever since it opened for the season in June. Its operators never obtained the proper permits from the town or the state, according to the Department of Health. Neighbors complained, but not much happened until a heating oil spill July 9 at the 450-acre site brought the camp to the attention of state regulators

The health department cited the multi-building camp complex July 14 for “numerous, persistent and serious violations,” including inoperable fire alarm systems, pervasive mold from leaky roofs and plumbing, electrical violations “that include water flowing over electrical boxes,” inadequate supervision of children, failure to maintain the sewage system and failure to protect the drinking water well from contamination.

“It’s deplorable,” said Tim Koestler, fire chief in nearby Summitville, who has inspected the property. “You walk into the building, your eyes and your throat start burning from the mold. There’s mold growing on the kitchen walls, the fire exits are blocked, the sprinkler system is not working, the fire alarm is not set up… it’s nasty.”

Koestler said that he and other local safety officials have been butting heads with the camp’s owners for three years. Earlier this summer, he warned publicly that if there were to be a fire in the main building, he would order his firefighters not to enter, because the complex is too unsafe.

According to Koestler, between 300 and 400 children and adults have been living at the camp this summer, despite it being a “fire trap.”

He said his complaints to camp leaders have fallen on deaf ears: “They look at you like you’ve got two heads. They’re like, ‘Stop bothering us.’ … They think they’re above the law.”

Early on the morning of Saturday, July 18, a fire broke out on the site in an unoccupied building removed from the main complex — one of about 20 abandoned and unused structures on the property. No one was injured, but the decrepit three-story building burned to the ground. The building had no electricity, leading investigators to believe the fire was deliberately set. The New York State Police and local officials are investigating the fire as an arson.

On July 24, after the camp failed to respond to the citations as well as to a request to shut down, the state Department of Health issued the mandatory “Order to Evacuate.” But as of July 29, children and adults were still living on the property.

In the interim, Department of Health officials visited the camp July 27 to try to ensure compliance with the evacuation order. Spokesman Juan Merino said the department “has reserved the right to take additional legal action” if the camp owners continue to flout the order, though he would not specify what possible legal actions the department could take.

“The department’s top priority remains the safety and the well-being of occupants at the former Homowack Lodge,” Merino said. “According to the commissioner’s order to evacuate, the occupants must immediately leave the site.”

Attempts by the Forward to reach the owners of the camp were unsuccessful. No public listings exist for Congregation Bais Trana or Machne Bnos Square, the name of the girls’ camp. The only listed number for the Homowack Lodge has been disconnected. Merino said he had no contact information for the camp operators.

Local residents have been watching the Homowack site warily since the Skver sect bought it. In August 2007, thousands of Orthodox Jews gathered at the lodge in Spring Glen, N.Y., to celebrate plans to establish a new Skver city named Kiryas Skver on the resort grounds. A group of neighbors quickly mobilized to oppose the plans, as they have done against other development proposals, saying that the intense development and population boom would be incompatible with the rural nature of the area. In recent weeks, though, the focus has shifted from issues of land use to those of safety.

“It’s really quite shocking, because there are lots of little kids there, and the property is a disaster,” said Anita Altman, a neighbor who is opposed to the Kiryas Skver plans and owns property adjacent to the camp. “What families would allow their children to stay in a place that has been ordered evacuated by the Department of Health?”

Contact Rebecca Dube at dube@forward.com



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