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Boro officials push bills at BSA reform hearing

Opponents of a proposed church in Flushing hold up signs denigrating the city Board of Standards and Appeals, an agency many Queens residents and civic organizations believe ignores community concerns. Photo by Joe Anuta
TimesLedger Newspapers

Two Queens lawmakers are sponsoring bills that would provide oversight over one of the most controversial government bodies in the city, and the public got to weigh in last month.

City Councilmen Dan Halloran (R-Whitestone) and Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside) both sponsored legislation that would provide oversight on decisions made by the city Board of Standards and Appeals, the agency that grants variances for developers to build projects outside of zoning laws.

“In our district, the agency is highly unpopular,” Halloran said. “Civic and the community board almost universally have a negative feeling toward the BSA.”

The board is an independent body made up of five mayoral appointees who have the final say in variance applications. BSA did not respond to a request for comment.

One of Halloran’s bills that would make the BSA process more palatable to communities around the city was discussed at an April 27 Council hearing.

The legislation would impose stiffer penalties on landowners who do not reapply for expired variances. Some businesses like automotive service shops must reapply to the city, but it is not uncommon for them to go a decade without doing so, according to Halloran.

Variances are supposed to be granted to a landowner if it is impossible to build on the property without getting relief from the zoning laws. But that definition would draw scoffs from many civic organizations and community leaders around the borough.

When a developer or landowner now wants a variance, they present their plan to the local community board and then the borough president. Both of them make recommendations on whether to approve or disapprove the plan ahead of the BSA, which is supposed to take the prior recommendations into account.

According to Alex Camarda from the nonprofit Citizens Union, that does not always happen in Queens. Camarda testified at the hearing along with civic leaders and presented statistics about the results of the board’s hearings.

The BSA approved 97 percent of the 105 applications it heard within the last year, according to Camarda, and the board disagreed with Queens community boards 32 percent of the time — the second highest rate in the city.

“Amplifying voices of the community in BSA decisions is needed, as shown by Citizens Union’s review of BSA decisions in the last year on variances, which we prepared in advance of today’s hearing,” he said.

Van Bramer had two bills that were discussed at the hearing, where members of the public waited hours to testify. The first would add another layer to the process of obtaining a variance by creating a community advisory board. The other would change how the BSA hears evidence at hearings by creating a standard operating procedure.

Queens civic leaders have long called for BSA reform, but Henry Euler, of the Auburndale Improvement Association, said the bills heard last week do not do enough.

“It is a step in the right direction, but they really need to go further,” he said. “There should be an appeals process in place that doesn’t involve having to file a lawsuit.”

Reach reporter Joe Anuta by e-mail at januta@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4566.

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