When Barbara Kraus and her husband, Joe, built their retirement home 10 years ago, her family’s 203 acres was still the peaceful countryside where she’d dreamed as a teenager under night skies ablaze with stars.
Now, they say, the peace and the darkness have been shattered by noise and lights of a nearby summer camp.
The Krauses and seven other neighbors are fighting to stop the camp from repeating what they claim was a nightmare last summer — of noise, brilliant sports lights shining into the wee hours of the morning, traffic problems, and a roaming bull and cows.
State Supreme Court Judge Eugene P. Devine on Thursday gave attorneys for Oorah Catskill Retreat and the objecting neighbors about 10 days to resolve their differences before deciding whether to grant the neighbors’ request to block the camp from reopening June 27.
The camp schedules separate four-week programs for girls and boys in July and August. The neighbors complain that loud music can heard almost around the clock, and that ball fields are lit and regularly used even in the middle of the night.
A class-action suit seeking $10 million for damages and reduced property values is pending against the camp, said Peter Henner, attorney for the neighbors.
“It’s been a learning experience,” Oorah’s attorney, Kevin Young, said since the New Jersey-based, New York City area nonprofit group began modernizing and expanding the former Golden Acres Farm camp they bought June 13, 2006. The camp now primarily serves underprivileged Jewish city kids, Young said.
One thing neighbors learned, according to Barbara Kraus, is that the town of Gilboa has no land-use, noise or lighting regulations to control impacts on neighbors from such developments.
A $200,000 system of 97 high-intensity lights installed last summer on 15 towers, each 60 feet high, on several camp recreational fields is a particularly sore point.
David Lewis, 75, whose 10-acre property abuts the new sports fields and a go-cart track, has photos of his yard lit brightly enough to easily read at 1 a.m. or later several times last summer. Neighbors say the fields were often lit all night last summer, with games going on as late as 4 a.m., said Lewis.
“I have a skylight in my bedroom, and I can’t see the stars anymore,” said Dolores Byrnes, one of the neighbors suing Oorah.
Loudspeakers blasting music throughout the day and night have shattered the former tranquil lifestyle, according to the neighbors.
“The torture … should be compared to the tactics utilized by the United States to force the surrender of former Panama President Manuel Noriega in 1991,” said Henner in May 29 court papers.
“However, plaintiffs are not dictators accused of drug dealing; instead they are innocent residents of a rural community who have the misfortune of living next to a large institution which appears to be intent on subjecting its neighbors to loud music and bright lights,” Henner wrote.
A spokeswoman for camp Director Rabbi Eliyohu Mintz referred calls to Young, an Albany lawyer.
Young said the camp is making some changes this season he believes will lessen lighting and loudspeaker noise impacts. Young said the camp plans to put visors on the lights, has upgraded 4,000 feet of fencing to control livestock, and plans to reduce music and limit loudspeaker use to six hours per day, ending at 10 p.m.
And this summer, the camp plans to keep fields lit only when they are in use, Young said.
“We’re not putting a curfew on the use of lights,” he noted. After younger children go to bed at 11 p.m., “that’s the only time the staff can use that field,” he added. “The lights were installed, in part, to allow the older children, counselors and staff to use the athletic fields after the children have gone to bed.”
“We’re not going to accept that,” Henner said. “They are recognizing some things that they have to do something about, but they are also confirming that there are some obnoxious things that they are not planning to do anything about,” Henner said.
“Playing 42 hours [a week] of music over a PA system that can be heard miles away is not something it is reasonable to expect the neighborhood to be subjected to,” he said.
The Krauses and Lewis, as well as Julie and Daniel Hull, say they have had to leave their homes during Oorah camp sessions just to get sleep and relax.
“We bought [here] three years ago for its beauty and the ruralness, said Julie Hull, a teacher at a school in northwestern Ulster County.
“It was our dream home,” said Hull, 31, as she held her 3-week-old daughter, Alexa.
“We tried to get the town to help us,” said Barbara Kraus, a retired vice president of nursing for New Rochelle Hospital Medical Center. “They worked against us rather than help us in any ways.”
Joseph Kraus, a retired New York City high school assistant principal, said the former Golden Acres Farm camp that operated on the site since about 1951 was a small Kosher-style family camp that neighbors never had much problem with.
Barbara worked there as teenager. The Krauses built their modern and landscaped home on the site of her parents’ former summer home.
About four years ago, when the Golden Acres was up for sale, the Krauses say they asked the Town Board to develop a site-plan review law to control development, but nothing happened.
A lot of activity was going on, as the camp was undergoing a continuing multimillion-dollar improvement to its sewage and wastewater systems, required to comply with state and New York City watershed rules. The site is within the watershed of the city’s nearby Schoharie Reservoir.
Now, the town is proposing a site-plan law and a hearing on the proposed law is set for July 7, according to Town Supervisor Anthony VanGlad.
It’s too late to control Oorah’s recent development, neighbors note, but it might help if Oorah decides to expand from its current 115-acre property or build nearby.
According to county property records, Oorah Catskill Retreat LLC bought the 115-acre former Golden Acres Farm resort on June 13, 2006, from Jerome Gauthier of Bradenton, Fla., and a family trust. Gauthier was still listed last week as owning several nearby parcels, including 280 acres of vacant land.
Between December 1998 and March 2006, the New York City Department of Environmental Protection paid for about “$3.3 million in capital and operations and maintenance expenses under the [city’s] wastewater treatment plant upgrade program,” related to the Oorah camp, according to DEP spokesman Michael Saucier.
When Oorah began operating in summer 2006, the upgraded treatment system still could not handle the output from several hundred campers and staff, according to state and county officials.
Complying with a state Department of Environmental Conservation order requiring additional upgrades is expected to cost Oorah about $1.5 million, according to Young.
Because sewage flow exceeded the system’s capacity, Oorah was forced last summer to take three truckloads per day, totaling about 12,000 gallons of sewage, to another site, Young said. That process, at a cost of about $70,000 over the two-month season, will be repeated this summer, he said.
The DEC fined Oorah $12,500, but $10,000 of the penalty was suspended provided they comply with required modifications that were to be completed by today, according to DEP spokeswoman Lori O’Connell.
The modifications included upgrading septic tanks, sand filters and ammonia treatment, and installation of a 5,000-gallon equalization tank. DEC and DEP officials said last week that Oorah was on track to comply.
Three new camp parking lots are planned to address complaints that cars of visiting parents clogged narrow Parliman and South Gilboa roads.
Design reviews are in process, according to the DEP.
Permits to operate the camp are still pending from Schoharie County Health Department. The camp was shut down for two days last June after health, safety and code violations were found, said county Health Director Kathleen Farrell Strack.
Pending inspections, Young said the county permits are expected in time for the camp to open on schedule.
As construction of the sports complex and lighting was going on last July, federal immigration agents and area police arrested 31 allegedly illegal aliens believed to be working for contractors at the camp.
Although Gilboa Supervisor VanGlad said he is sympathetic to the camp neighbors, he acknowledged the town lacks noise or lighting restrictions.
“The town doesn’t have the tools to handle their complaints,” he said. “At some point I think [we] should,” Van Glad said. “There was talk about it a couple of times, but it never seemed to pick up any enthusiasm among the [town] board.”
“With a gentlemanly discussion with the owners, I think this can be resolved,” VanGlad said last week.