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Council members seek stronger community review of zoning exemptions

Constituent complaints drive move to review Board of Standards and Appeals decisions to grant variances

The future site of a Brooklyn Whole Foods is one of more than 100 city properties that received special zoning exemptions in the past year. Photo: Bryan Bruchman/Flickr

The board that makes exceptions to New York City’s zoning code on behalf of property owners ruled in favor of 97 percent of those applications in the past year — in many cases over the objections of local community boards.

Alex Camarda, director of advocacy and public policy for the government reform group Citizens Union, told the City Council Committee on Governmental Operations during a hearing last Friday that community boards from Queens and Staten Island were the likeliest to object to proposals. They were also the likeliest to have those “no” votes disregarded by the Board of Standards and Appeals (BSA).

Most frequently, property owners sought the BSA variances to expand one- or two-family homes into larger structures or add commercial spaces in residential areas.

Under the City Charter, community boards have an advisory vote on all variances, which seek to build structures that would otherwise be too large or otherwise incompatible with local zoning. Applicants for the variances must prove that zoning imposes a hardship.

In Queens, community boards recommended against nine proposed variances between May 2011 and April 2012, out of 28 applications. The Board of Standards and Appeals approved all of the variances despite the recommendation.

Staten Island community boards recommended disapproval in another nine instances, out of 23 variance requests, and like the Queens boards saw BSA vote in favor of the variances.

Citizens Union reviewed 108 Board of Standards and Appeals variance decisions and presented its findings in support of a bill, sponsored by 10 council members, that would require the board to produce quarterly reports of instances in which its zoning decisions contradict the recommendations of community boards.

Though the data Citizens Union relied on is available publicly through the BSA website, Camarda noted there’s no information available to community boards about changes that might have been made to an application after their vote. Without full information, some members of the City Council suggested at the hearing, communities are shut out of land-use decisions that can alter the character of a neighborhood.

“It’s horrifying to me to look at your chart,” Council Member Daniel J. Halloran told Camarda during the hearing. His northeast Queens district overlaps with Community Board 11, where members voted against variances four times in the past year. “These numbers represent the BSA disregarding community boards and borough presidents 40 percent of the time in Staten Island, a third of the time in Queens.

Other council members echoed frustrations with the five-member board, which is appointed by the mayor.

“My experience, my community’s experience, with BSA has been painful and it is riddled with numerous instances of an entire community being disregarded while it approved development that flies in the face of what is best for our community,” Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer said during the hearing.

Halloran noted that the New York State Court of Appeals ruled in 2009 that the BSA abused its discretion when it approved a variance on Staten Island for a commercial structure in a residentially zoned area, finding the BSA didn’t satisfy its own standards for issuing a variance, as defined by the city charter.

Jeff Mulligan, executive director of the BSA, said that the board’s decisions were fair and not abitrary. “Ninety-eight, 99 percent of the time, the courts agree with us,” Mulligan told the committee. “There’s absolutely discussion on all decisions affecting board cases.”

He advised the committee that rather than legislating a reporting requirement, which he said would be burdensome on staff, the board could work with the City Council to provide individual reports on request. “We’re happy to issue reports whenever the Council wants them,” said Mulligan.

Others who testified said the proposed bill is a case of the City Council shirking its own oversight responsibilities. “All the information that the Council is seeking is public information, obtainable by the Council, which can compile the report on its own as part of its oversight responsibility,” Robert Altman, legislative consultant to the Building Industry Association of New York City and the Queens and Bronx Buildings Association, wrote in testimony to the committee.

While the information is available, said Camarda of Citizens Union, the kind of reports being requested represent an opportunity for the BSA to explain in greater detail the process involved in land use cases and “in a meaningful way, account for some of the nuances.”

“That would be interesting information to know,” said Camarda. “BSA should make it available.”

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