The Civic Scene: Katz, Avella address zoning at civic meeting

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A couple of weeks ago the Queens Civic Congress rehashed the issues of community facilities, zoning and quality of life in low-density residential communities at a charged meeting at the Union Plaza Nursing Home in Flushing. A very large audience attended, as many are upset after buying one- and two-family homes only to find that large community facilities are buying up houses and using the “as-of-right clause” to build and build, thus threatening residents’ quality of life.

The civic invited Councilwoman Melinda Katz, chairwoman of the Land Use Committee, and Councilman Tony Avella, chairman of the Zoning Subcommittee, who are familiar with these issues. Katz was director of community boards under former Borough President Claire Shulman and knew the concerns of the communities of Queens, and Avella was a civic leader in College Point and knew the zoning problems there and in north Flushing.

Councilman John Liu, who was president of the North Flushing Civic where the Union Plaza Nursing Home is located, came to listen and lend support. Even his block and his house are threatened.

Queens Civic Congress President Sean Walsh, a Douglaston civic association leader, said that homeowners are not opposed to community facilities such as religious institutions, hospitals or schools, but are bothered when they either enlarge the residential houses they buy or tear them down and build gigantic buildings. Often these institutions blur their purpose.

When is a hospital a research center and when is a house of worship a school or a catering hall used for profit and not to serve the immediate community? Why do people come from miles away to use these facilities? The 1961 community facilities law envisioned local people using local facilities.

Homeowners buy houses and then discover that community facilities are tearing down houses to build parking lots or are trying to build a four-story building that towers over surrounding houses. The community facility rule of the Zoning Resolution was designed in the 1930s and passed after World War II in 1961. We live in a different world from that of 1930 or 1961; the rule needs changing.

Council members Katz and Avella feel that changes should be made now. I remember sitting at the Queens Zoning Task Force and having the City Planning Commission representative say that they do understand the concerns of the civic association leaders and that they soon will have new rules. None ever was produced.

As soon as our city budget is finalized, Avella wants to hold hearings and have a proposal by November. He explained that he has told Mayor Mike Bloomberg that this issue is a concern to civic associations. Walsh said that he and Patricia Dolan, Kew Gardens Hills Civic, have met with civic association leaders from the five boroughs. Even Manhattan civic leaders, who have few one-family houses, want revised community facilities rules.

One problem is that in 2000 the U.S. Congress passed the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, known as RLUIPA. The House of Representatives passed this law in four hours without any public hearings by local officials or impacted neighbors. The bill quickly was passed by the U.S. Senate and signed by the president.

The law is written so that if a locality passes zoning laws restricting the bulk of houses of worship, the local zoning law can be challenged on religious grounds. Some houses of worship are challenging zoning laws in different states using RLUIPA; however, the issue is not one of religious restriction, but of land use.

Local jurisdictions and civic groups across the country are mobilizing. They say the law is unconstitutional. Eventually, a case will reach the U.S. Supreme Court where localities finally will be heard. When one of our Queens congresswomen was contacted, the person didn’t even know what RLUIPG was.

The QCC and its members will be contacting all Queens Congress members about RLUIPA. The City Planning Commission and the Board of Standards and Appeals, which can grant variances to the Zoning Resolution, are being contacted about these zoning concerns.

We don’t have to contact our council members because many were civic leaders and many own homes, so they are very familiar with these problems.

Good and Bad News of the Week

The Queens high schools have just held graduations. Thousands have graduated with all kinds of prestigious awards and scholarships; thousands of others have just met the basic requirements and only received a diploma. This is positive news from our schools. Yes, some did not graduate but often have problems of all kinds. Did you see many stories telling of the many students who graduated from our high schools and the many positive accomplishments of our graduates? Why not?

Posted 7:07 pm, October 10, 2011
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