The Artaud affair

What happened to water in the well beneath Rene Artaud’s home on Forest Street in the Town of Monroe?


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  • Photo by Douglas Feiden Rene Artaud stands at the chain-link fence that separates his home at 505 Forest Street from Mikvah Yisroel, the towering, two-story structure at 509 Forest Street (background) that houses a school on the second floor and dozens of tubs used by Jewish women for ritual purification on the ground floor.




  • Photo by Douglas Feiden A view of Mikvah Yisroel, located just south of the Quickway at 509 Forest St. The facility contains at least 40 tubs, resembling micro-swimming pools, in which Jewish women will bathe. It is crowned by an 18-classroom, second-floor school for 300-plus students. When operational, the facility could consume up to 7,400 gallons of water per day.




  • Photo by Douglas Feiden Rene Artaud stands near his newly dug water well at 505 Forest Street in Monroe. The eaves of his home are at left, and at rear right, across the chain-link fence, stands Mikvah Yisroel, a bulky structure that contains dozens of tubs used by Jewish women for ritual purification. Crowning the complex is an 18-classroom, second-floor school for 300-plus kids.




  • Photo by Douglas Feiden A view of Glenwood School I, at 520 Forest St. in Monroe, which serves 1,000 Jewish girls in 60 classrooms and sports areas for prayer and kosher catering. Close to Rene Artaud’s home at 505 Forest St., the school has an outdoor swimming pool and uses 4,000 gallons of water per day.



By Douglas Feiden

— If you want to understand the propulsive growth of Kiryas Joel and how it is upending the lives of its neighbors, look no further than the private well at the home of Rene Artaud at 505 Forest St. in the Town of Monroe.

The freshly deepened pit in his back yard speaks to a fear afoot in the communities abutting KJ that the overflow of people and institutions from the village is imperiling their most precious natural resource — the water.

It also highlights the fate that can befall a local homeowner living south of Route 17 when new and accelerated development bursts beyond KJ’s traditional and political boundaries and spills across the Quickway.

This is the story of a 73-year-old retired New York City transit police officer who had a serious run of bad luck in 2016. It’s about an unusual $4,000 payment — questionable, but legal — he received from a Hasidic developer who is building religious institutions next door. And it’s a window into the seismic transformation of Monroe itself over the past 40 years.

“Everything went wrong last year, and I mean everything,” said Artaud, who first set foot in Monroe with his parents 65 years ago when he was nine years old. “I found out I had prostate cancer. My dog Zeke died. Donald Trump got elected president. And oh, yes, there was one more thing. My well went dry.”

In recent years, other area wells have been running dry or required emergency deepening.

“There are many Mr. Artauds,” said Monroe Town Supervisor Harley E. Doles III, who has long warned of a run on water resources and faulted municipalities for failing to protect and conserve supplies. “There will be many, many more Mr. Artauds.”

Whither the waterIn multiple interviews over a two-week period, Artaud recounted the saga of his well, which sits near the old fieldstone home he bought in 1970. That was before the arrival of the first Satmar Hasids, who began relocating from Brooklyn in 1975. That was also before the incorporation of Kiryas Joel, with its population of 710, in 1977. And before the village’s mega-growth, to 23,000 inhabitants today, spurred community members a few years ago to venture across the symbolic border of the highway.

Artaud said he believes that latter migration and an accompanying construction boom may have ultimately led to the drying up of his well. It happened shortly before last Thanksgiving, and for roughly 12 days, he couldn’t properly cook, bathe, clean or avail himself of plumbing. “I was basically camping out in my own house,” he said.

So in early December, he hired a contractor who set up a portable water-well drilling rig on his property. He started drilling. And drilled and drilled and drilled some more.

The depth of his old well, which he had deepened in 1999, was 300 feet, with a pump located 280 feet down, Artaud said.

But when the work on a new shaft was completed three days later, its depth was 520 feet, with a replacement pump at 480 feet.

In other words, his new well was 220 feet deeper than his old well.

There’s more. The original borehole hit water after descending 165 feet, but now, the well goes down 280 feet before it reaches water. “What this means is that my water level dropped about 115 feet, which is almost unheard of,” Artaud contends.

What it also means is that Artaud — who retired in 1995 from the New York Police Department’s transit force and lives on Social Security and his NYPD pension — had to pay a sizable bill for well-drilling services, setting him back $8,000.

It is by no means certain why the water table plunged so precipitously. Or who or what was responsible for the well’s cutoff. Or if the cause was human (the hand of man) or elemental (the ongoing drought) or both.

Those facts are crucial; they are also in dispute.

But equally important is that Artaud and other homeowners similarly situated believe, rightly or wrongly, that the outgrowth from Kiryas Joel — with its attendant new dwellings, water infrastructure, sewer lines and religious, ritual and educational institutions — has been taxing town resources to the breaking point and bears culpability for diminished water output.

Schools, tubs, pools and more schoolsConsider Artaud’s new and prospective institutional neighbors and the demands they are making or could soon make on their shared aquifer:

Mikvah Yisroel, at 509 Forest St., a sprawling two-story structure on a two-acre site. Recently developed, it towers on the other side of a chain-link fence mere feet from Artaud’s 1923 home at 505 Forest St., which is dated by a cornerstone affixed to a back wall. The facility includes a ground-floor mikvah for the Jewish ritual purification of women and a planned 18-classroom school for 342 children and teachers on a second floor.

Mikvah Yisroel will contain at least 40 tubs resembling mini-swimming pools. Traditionally, each individual mikvah holds some 200 gallons of rainwater, as prescribed in Halachic law, the body of Jewish religious law. The facility is largely completed and has been tested extensively, though it’s not yet operational.

When it opens, average water demand could hit 7,400 gallons per day, according to documents presented to the Zoning Board of Appeals.

A school for children with special needs, at 510 Forest St., is about 200 feet from Artaud’s house, and there is also a blacktop parking area near Mikvah Yisroel where up to 20 yellow buses serving the Kiryas Joel religious school system are stationed.

Glenwood School I, at 520 Forest St., a 60-classroom, three-story, 80,000-square-foot parochial school for roughly 1,000 Jewish girls. The school, about one-fifth of a mile from Artaud’s house, is outfitted with a large prayer area and a kosher-catering area. It also boasts an adjoining outdoor swimming pool. The complex has been open since 2015 and consumes some 4,000 gallons of water per day.

Glenwood School II, a second proposed religious girl’s school. It would rise on a 10-plus acre site directly east of Glenwood I and mirror its size, providing some 60 classrooms, also spread out over 80,000 square feet. The school’s application is pending before the town Planning Board.

Out of the past, out of the ashesHow Monroe has changed since 1952. That was when Artaud’s parents first came up from the city, in a 1950 Hudson, to the summer bungalow they owned on Seven Springs Mountain Road, exactly a quarter-century before the founding of Kiryas Joel.

It was to the site of those old bungalow colonies, razed years earlier, that surviving Satmars from Hitler’s Europe journeyed in the 1970s. They had come — from Hungary to Brooklyn to Orange County — to rebuild and repopulate after the mass obliteration of the Jewish people. The surest, swiftest and godliest way to do that, they felt, was by having nine or 10 children.

So it was that Artaud and thousands of earlier settlers saw their world transformed.

“He went from living in a tiny rural community to being at the epicenter of these huge demographic changes that are bringing in thousands of students, all drinking water, flushing toilets and using the resources which they legitimately need to use,” Doles said. “And that is not a criticism of them. It is a criticism of our failure to initiate a long-term conservation program and an aquifer-protection zone and find long-term solutions to the water problems.”

The anatomy of a $4,000 checkWhich brings us back to that dry well. On Dec. 5, Artaud’s new well came on line, and the next day, he penned a handwritten letter to the Planning Board, which was reviewing a request by Mikvah Yisroel to amend its earlier site plan to permit the second-floor children’s school.

Artaud noted his $8,000 cost, wrote that multiple homes had needed new or deepened wells after Glenwood I and the special-needs school opened. He concluded: “Please consider that these planned projects, new school, mikvah with a school on top for 300-plus children, might be more than the water available.”

It was a short time after he wrote the letter, which had become a public document, that he entered into conversations with Isaac Walter, the project manager for Mikvah Yisroel, Glenwood I and Glenwood II, which are administered by Vyoel Moshe Beis Rochel of KJ and Sheri Torah Inc. as part of the religious school system for village students.

Both Artaud and Walter confirmed that the discussions involved possible compensation. Walter declines to discuss details, but didn’t dispute Artaud’s account. Documents and emails in the matter were released by Doles.

On Feb. 6, Artaud told Kate Troiano, then-secretary to both ZBA and the Planning Board, that Walter, as the property’s representative, had offered him $4,000, or 50 percent, of the well work “if Mr. Artaud did not speak about his concerns” at an upcoming board meeting, according to a Feb. 10 letter Troiano wrote to board members.

“I told Mr. Artaud that that sounded rather unethical,” she reported in her letter.

Word of the unusual offer had already swept across town officialdom, and on Feb. 7, Doles started firing off emails to board members and attorneys: “How many times did I say that there was not enough water?” Doles wrote. “Now, someone is willing to pay residents to keep their mouth shut.”

In another email, he said it is “perhaps morally indefensible” to offer money so that someone “would not speak up about environmental concerns.”

But it is perfectly legal, and in fact, could actually be praiseworthy, insisted Michael H. Donnelly, the Planning Board attorney.

In a Feb. 10 letter to board chair Audra Schwartz, he called the offer “serious and relevant” to the board’s review of the Mikvah applicant, but said it didn’t “constitute bribery in the criminal law sense because the offer of payment was not made to a public official.”

In an interview, Donnelly went further, calling the condemnation of the offer as improper a “knee-jerk reaction,” and saying it is not uncommon for a developer to address a community’s planning needs by entering into a “community benefit agreement” that provides support for a local project.

In turn, the beneficiary would pledge “not to oppose the developer’s project, which could mean not speaking out,” he said. Donnelly cited Columbia University, which has forged such deals with its neighbors in Morningside Heights and Manhattanville.

“The idea of a developer trying to address a single homeowner’s immediate problem can be a very laudatory thing,” he said.

For his part, Walter did not address questions about his alleged suggestion that Artaud absent himself from town meetings in return for the funds for his well.

But in a two-line emailed statement, he confirmed that the payment had been made: “Our engineer Mr. Tom Cusack has submitted documented proof to the Planning Board that our wells did not affect Mr. Artaud’s well,” he wrote.

“When Mr. Artaud complained to us, we considered the fact that since we built our school and mikvah in close proximity to Mr. Artaud, we should be good neighbors and assist Mr. Artaud in the cost of replacing his well, even though we had no obligation to do so.”

Of droughts and cloud burstsWalter also provided a Feb. 14 letter that Cusack, a hydrogeologist retained by Mikvah Yisroel, submitted to the Planning Board, which documented water-level measurements made from Artaud’s well during a 72-hour pumping test of the Mikvah’s supply well.

His conclusion: “No water-level drawdown caused by the pumping of Mikvah’s potable well at 2.7 times the estimated water demand of the project is discernible in the well located at 505 Forest Street,” he wrote.

Addressing the issue of Artaud’s deepened well, he added, “The loss in yield of the well cannot be attributed to the Mikvah wells considering the wells were not in service and were unequipped.”

He said the cause was more likely “severe drought in the region, which is still ongoing, and long-term regional groundwater withdrawal from public supply wells.”

His letter didn’t address water usage at nearby Glenwood I.

Cusack made a similar argument at the March 7 Planning Board meeting, saying the current drought is “very similar to the 1960 drought, which was one of the worst on record,” and could account in part for why the aquifer had dipped 100 feet or so.

It isn’t easy to argue with a hydrogeologist, but one person equipped to do so is Ward Brower III, who serves on the town’s Conservation Commission and runs a small, family-owned tree farm on Sapphire Road.

Yes, there’s a drought, but Brower said in an interview there had also been several major cloud-bursts last year, each flash-storm producing some five inches of rain.

“I know because there was a tremendous amount of rain in my rain-gauge bucket and I didn’t have to irrigate,” he said.

Cusack’s findings, he argued, are “contrary to empirical observation…. I find it suspect. So I’m assuming there is something else that is sucking a lot of water out of the aquifer.”

Adds Troiano, “I’m not a hydro-geologist, but when you’re building so many large schools and other facilities that need such huge amounts of water, it’s kind of naïve to think the supply is unlimited. The little ones will flush the toilet four or five times because they think it’s fun, that’s what they do.”

Meanwhile, Artaud said Walter gave him his $4,000 check on Feb. 13, right before Valentine’s Day. “Twenty minutes after Isaac handed it to me, I deposited it at TD Bank in Monroe,” he said. “And if he had paid me the full $8,000, I probably wouldn’t be talking to you!”

Farewell, Monroe, farewellOne point about the Artaud Affair is indisputable: He is not a water-guzzler. Artaud separated from his second wife Patricia in the early 1980s. His grown daughter Denise moved out in the late 1980s. And his beloved Zeke, a Treeing Walker Coonhound, died in April.

“I’m just one person living alone, without even a dog anymore,” he says. “My water needs are negligible. But still, my well went dry.”

The events have taken quite a toll. Artaud says he has put his house on the market. He hopes to reap around $360,000 and says he’ll probably move to Goshen.

“Monroe is not Monroe anymore,” he says. “For me, Monroe is over.”



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