Northeast civic leaders get zoning lesson

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You may live in a quiet, peaceful residential neighborhood now, but your quality of life can change in a heartbeat, northeast Queens civic leaders warned more than 100 Little Neck residents last week.

The Little Neck Pines Civic Association hosted last Thursday’s meeting at Middle School 67 in Little Neck, which featured civic leaders from Flushing, Bayside and nearby Douglaston talking about a contentious zoning issue: community facilities.

Community facilities are institutions such as medical offices, schools, community groups, hospitals and churches that are permitted under the city’s zoning rules to build in residential areas without first notifying the community and without other restrictions, such as parking requirements.

Following the lead of the Queens Civic Congress, an umbrella group of 102 civics from across the borough, the Little Neck Pines Association and the Douglaston Civic Association were hosting meetings to help residents write letters to several elected officials, asking them to change the zoning laws for community facilities.

The Little Neck Pines Association collected dozens of letters last week, while the Douglaston Civic Association was expected to host the first of at least three letter-writing meetings Thursday.

Flushing, particularly northern Flushing, has been overrun by community facilities in the past decade, civic leader Tyler Cassell of the North Flushing Civic Association told the audience.

Cassell presented a slide show of his northern Flushing neighborhood, telling several stories of how private properties have been gobbled up by different community facilities and residents are repeatedly asked to sell their homes.

“We’ve known over the last several years that things were changing,” Cassell said. “We didn’t really know how bad it was until we started to take a look.”

The crowd gasped after the slide show, when Cassell showed maps of the neighborhood with properties that were community facilities colored in black. In 1990, there were seven community facilities in a six-block radius, Cassell said. Now there are 45, he said.

“We’ve got a lot of holes in the zoning law that we need to fix,” he said.

Opposition to community facilities among Queens civic groups has been running high for some time as civic leaders fight financially strong groups that buy land and draw people to residential neighborhoods without paying taxes or creating more parking.

Because community facilities are just beginning to move into residential areas in the northeastern most corner of the borough, Little Neck-Douglaston civic leaders have only begun to mobilize against them.

Little Neck-Douglaston residents have been battling one community facility project — a three-story, 20,000-square-foot Korean church being built on a lot adjacent to homes and other businesses — for more than a year.

Bayside civic leader Frank Skala, president of the East Bayside Homeowners Association, urged Little Neck residents to get involved with their community if they wanted to fight the community facilities issue.

“One of the things you’ve got to do is go to the public hearings and testify,” Skala said.

Skala cited the example of a Korean church in Flushing which won approval from the city Board of Standards and Appeals to use two empty lots for parking, despite the opposition of community leaders and neighbors.

“It is an example of what the city does not care about, which is you and me,” he said. “We’ve got much more in common — Bayside, Little Neck and Douglaston — with Garden City and Mineola than we do with the Bronx or Brooklyn.”

Not so, said Douglaston civic activist Sean Walsh, president of the Queens Civic Congress. Walsh said civic groups across the city have been grappling with the community facilities issue.

Walsh told the crowd the time was ripe for the city to tackle the community facilities issue, especially with former civic leaders City Councilmen Tony Avella (D-Bayside) and John Liu (D-Flushing) in office.

“I’ve been fighting this same issue for 30 years,” Walsh said. The Queens Civic Congress has asked civic groups across the borough to generate 50 to 100 letters each about community facilities to send to City Hall, he said.

“If we can make this happen across the borough,” he said, “If we can generate 1,000 letters citywide ... they don’t know what’s going to hit them.”

Walsh warned the crowd that there was a high price for not fighting to preserve the borough’s residential neighborhoods.

“If we don’t, Flushing will disappear and we’ll be next.”

Reach reporter Kathianne Boniello by e-mail at or call 229-0300, Ext. 146.

Posted 7:07 pm, October 10, 2011
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