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The way Lamm tells it, the deal was a beautiful coincidence: An empty field zoned for agriculture, a broke village that needed a wastewater treatment plant and Lamm himself, a deep-pocketed developer with big plans.
Decades ago, Mamakating was a vacationland for middle-class New York Jews. Situated at the foot of the Catskill Mountains and bisected by the Shawangunk Ridge, Mamakating was at the heart of the old borscht belt, its resort hotels filled with refugees from crowded city apartments. The Shawanga Lodge was a just couple of miles from Bloomingburg, the Nevele and Kutsher’s a town or two over.
By the 1990s, that had all petered out. There are still vacation homes and bungalow colonies in the Catskills, many of them populated by Orthodox Jews, but nothing like the old resorts. Today, unemployment is high, the tax base small and the main streets dying. Yet agricultural land is cheap, and Lamm saw an opportunity to make a big bet.
Bloomingburg has its own village government, despite having just 400 residents. Planning and zoning within Bloomingburg is handled by the village, not by the larger town of Mamakating. In the mid-2000s, according to Lamm, the village needed a new wastewater treatment plant. He decided to offer a deal: Lamm’s firm would build the plant, and in return the village would incorporate within its boundaries an adjoining field that he had purchased, thereby making the field eligible for residential construction.
“The fact is, when we bought this, Orange County was booming,” Lamm said. Bloomingburg, just over the border in Sullivan County, seemed a logical spot for new development. Lamm said that his original plan was to put a golf course community on the land. “This would be inexpensive, really beautiful housing, good schools, etc., etc. That was the business rationale,” he said.
Lamm says that he dropped the golf course idea and clustered the homes into three-, four- and five-unit buildings on the insistence of the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation. Other parts of the plan changed after the economic crisis in 2008 as well. Lamm said that he has been in touch with the Satmar community about the development, but that he is in touch with other groups as well, and he is not marketing it exclusively to Hasidic Jews. Lamm also said that he never filed any document claiming that the development would be smaller than the current 396 units. Some residents remember things differently.
According to a report in the Times Herald-Record, a local paper that has reported extensively on the Bloomingburg controversy, the face of the development in 2006 was a local named Duane Roe. At a Village Board meeting in 2006, Roe told residents that the development would be a 125-home gated community for weekenders, according to the paper.
Lamm and Roe have since split, and Lamm has sued Roe. In an email to the Forward, Lamm insisted that he had not misrepresented the project: “Even if Mr. Roe made such a claim at some very early point in a discussion (I have no evidence of this), the vast, overwhelming documentation, every single public hearing, and all of the numerous public presentations made, all made over probably six years, all referred to the same 396 units that were ultimately granted.”
Yet Holly Roche, who leads an anti-development group called the Rural Community Coalition, said that neighbors were shocked when they saw the first model homes go up. “The community at large was under the impression that a 125 luxury home gated golf-course community with a golf club, restaurant, pool, walking trails — that this is what was being built,” Roche said. The model homes didn’t look like they were part of any gated community. And they certainly didn’t look like anything else in the village.