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Developer Huang set to purchase Klein Farm

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A developer notorious for damaging a landmarked Flushing theater may soon complete the purchase of the historic Klein Farm, New York City’s last family-owned working farm, City Councilman David Weprin (D-Hollis) said.

Douglaston developer Thomas Huang, who was convicted of environmental crimes in 1999 at the RKO Keith’s Theater in downtown Flushing, is poised to purchase the 2.2-acre Klein Farm on 194th Street and 73rd Avenue in Fresh Meadows, according to Weprin, who said he has been in contact with Huang’s land-use attorney.

A Weprin staffer said Huang is under contract to buy the farm, which has existed since 1890 and belonged to the Klein family for generations. Community members hope to preserve the property as a farm and open space.

Huang was sentenced in 1999 to five years’ probation and ordered to pay $5,000 in fines on a felony count for “endangering the health and welfare of the environment” after he ignored asbestos contamination and spilled hundreds of gallons of fuel oil in the basement of the RKO Keith’s Theater. The lobby and grand staircase of the theater, which opened in 1928, had been designated as landmarked areas shortly before Huang purchased the property in 1986.

Huang’s lawyer could not be reached for comment on the Klein Farm property.

“If he buys it, you’re not going to have anything preserved,” said John Watts, chief of staff for former City Councilwoman Julia Harrison (D-Flushing) who filed various complaints against Huang for his management of Flushing properties.

“His record for preservation stinks,” Watts said. “Any hope of keeping it as a working farm in the community — that will go right down the drain.”

In July 2001, current owner John Klein announced he had entered a contract to sell the farm to an unidentified developer, citing poor sales and changing lifestyles as his reasons for his decision.

The developer’s original plans for the property included construction of 22 two-family homes, according to Community Board 8 members, but those plans may be scuttled by City Planning and Landmarks Preservation restrictions.

A Landmarks Preservation designation is pending for the farm’s two-story brick house, built in 1915. The designation would prohibit any construction that changes or damages the structure, although a developer could conceivably build around the house, Weprin said.

But development of the Klein Farm is also limited by a 1974 amendment to local zoning laws that created a special planned community preservation district in Fresh Meadows. The amendment allows development on only 20 percent of the land and requires city council approval of any plans to build on preservation district property.

Despite these safeguards against development, Fresh Meadows residents are concerned about the future of the farm and are ready to battle to preserve the agricultural and historical nature of the property. Several local civic groups have joined to form the Klein Farm Task Force to work with political leaders and nonprofit organizations to preserve the farm.

Weprin said the developer may consider reselling the property to a land preservation organization like the Trust for Public Land. The trust, a national organization dedicated to purchasing and preserving open space, is “very interested in seeing the (Klein) property protected as public open space,” said spokeswoman Susan Clark.

The organization never made a bid on the farm because a contract had already been established with a private developer, Clark said, but the group would be willing to purchase the farm if the development contracts falls through.

Although funding has not yet been established for such a purchase, she said the organization would “explore all sources” of funding, including federal and state financing and private fund-raising donations.

“The community is concerned because it’s a beautiful piece of property that’s been a farm for over 100 years,” said Judy Schwartz, who has lived across from the Klein farm for 30 years.

She said the proposed development would bring 88 new families into the neighborhood and would overstress the area’s school, sanitation, police and traffic capacities, in addition to robbing residents of a peaceful rural landscape.

“It’s a beautiful sight to get up in the morning, look out and see farmland and trees growing and green grass,” Schwartz said. “It would be a terrible shame to see that disrupted.”

Reach contributing writer Patricia Demchak by e-mail at Timesledgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 155.

Posted 7:02 pm, October 10, 2011
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