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Editorial: Charlie’s Knightmare

For the first time in its history, the population of Queens has topped two million. Each year thousands of people relocate to this borough because they believe Queens will be a good place to raise their families. The influx has caused property values to skyrocket. At the same time, the population growth has created pressures that threaten to diminish the quality of life here for everyone.

Consider the nightmare now facing Charlie Knight and his family. By all accounts, this is the kind of family that makes northeast Queens a great place to live. Charlie lives in a 70-year-old house with his wife, two kids and a dog in a quiet residential section of College Point. Charlie coaches Little League and CYO basketball and his wife is active in the local PTA.

Last year, a rundown house on the property next door to the Knights was put up for sale at a price far greater than it was worth. The whole block could feel the developers honing in. It came as little surprise that the new owners of the property demolished the old building to make room for a two-family house.

What happened next shattered the world for Charlie and his family. The contractor laid the foundation for the new building just inches from the Knight property line. According to Charlie, when the builders dug the foundation, they destroyed plants and rose bushes on the Knight side of the property line and even went so far as to store building materials on his patio and used his water to mix their cement.

To make matters worse, none of the builders appeared to understand English. Both sides in this dispute now have attorneys and the courts will decide if the builder, Orient Construction Group, has violated the city's building code. But even if the court rules in favor of Orient, there is little to excuse the way in which it has gone about its business. Queens is first and foremost a borough of families, not a fruit there for the picking by aggressive real estate investors.

The attorney for Orient claims the builder has the legal right to attach the new building to the Knight's home. But even if they have a legal right, they can hardly claim the moral right.

As we have seen repeatedly over the past decade, there is enormous incentive to squeeze every possible inch of living space out of Queens. This has resulted in thousands of one-family homes being legally and illegally converted into multifamily housing. Old houses are torn down to make room for small apartment buildings. Such changes directly affect the character of a neighborhood.

In the past, we have used this space to strongly defend the rights of investors to realize a profit on their real-estate investments. But those rights have limits. If Queens is allowed to grow without regard for the quality of life of the families who already live here, then everyone loses.

New zoning laws are needed to protect the integrity of the neighborhoods where common sense and good will no longer hold sway. As the numbers come in from the current census, Borough Hall and city planners will need to take a long, hard look at where Queens is today and where they would like it to be 10 years from now. They must take the steps necessary to ensure that when the next census is taken, Queens is still the best place to live in New York City.

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