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New York is a city of neighborhoods. Whether it is the townhouses uptown, the brownstones in Brooklyn or the single-family homes of Whitestone, when you buy or rent a home here, you are getting more than a place to sleep — you are getting the surrounding neighborhood.
Our city has laws in place that try to maintain what makes each neighborhood unique. The New York City Zoning Resolution, which contains thousands of pages of detailed requirements stating the types of buildings and uses that are permitted on each block in New York City, makes sure communities do not change overnight.
In a nutshell, the zoning resolution prevents someone from buying the land next to your home and turning it into a gas station, or building an apartment tower that casts a shadow over your entire block.
But developers can skirt these laws by applying for a variance from the city Board of Standards and Appeals, an agency with the ability to override zoning laws and allow buildings to be built out of context with the surrounding neighborhood.
This means a noisy shipping center or nightclub could open on your quiet residential street or down the block from your local elementary school.
The worst part? There is nothing you, as a resident or homeowner, can do. The BSA does not care what you think.
As part of the process, community boards are given an opportunity to comment on variance applications or recommend changes. Often, developers will respect the community’s desires and adapt their plans to reduce community opposition, but the BSA has a record of dismissing the community boards’ recommendations and granting variances even when the community is opposed.
An independent body found that 20 percent of the time the BSA approves variance applications despite a community board rejection, but that number is higher in Queens: 32 percent.
This must stop, and now is the time for change. Two weeks ago, the City Council Committee on Governmental Operations held a hearing to discuss reforming the BSA. People turned out from every borough with stories about fighting the BSA and losing. Civic leaders, land use experts and community board members showed up and voiced their support for reforming this agency.
I introduced a law that would make a difference in this struggle. That law, Intro 650, requires the BSA to inform property owners six months before their variance expires. This will eliminate property owners “forgetting” to renew their variances and blaming it on new management or ownership.
Failure to renew a variance would be punishable by a fine increasing by $500 every six months until the variance is renewed.
We need a variance process that is accountable to the people. An unelected board should not have the power to change the law without the community’s support.
The BSA must be reformed in a responsible manner, where all sides are given an equal opportunity to be heard and all opinions are considered. Otherwise, our quality of life will be compromised and our housing stock will nosedive.
When you buy a home, you should know what you are getting — and no one, not a greedy developer or a board of unelected bureaucrats, should be able to take that from you.
©2012 Community Newspaper Group
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