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Boro civics lobby to limit community facilities

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Advocates for changes to the city's zoning laws made a pitch to the Queens County Line Democratic Association last week to drum up support for tougher regulation of community facilities before anticipated zoning reforms are announced by the City Planning Department.

Queens Civic Congress President Sean Walsh and Tyler Cassell, president of the North Flushing Civic Association, told the audience at Temple Sholom in Floral Park last Thursday about the predicament faced by neighbors of community facilities, such as churches and medical offices that are allowed to move into residential areas as of right.

"I'm asking for your political support on this issue," said Walsh. The Queens County Line Democratic Association is a Democratic Party club in northeast Queens.

Community facilities are exempt from many zoning regulations, said Walsh, because businesses such as medical offices were relatively small in scale when the city last amended its zoning resolution in 1961.

"The concept of what is listed as a community facility has changed," said Walsh, a Douglaston resident whose organization represents more than 100 civic groups in Queens.

"Now they're called MRI clinics and they're four stories high."

Cassell presented a slide show documenting the rapid takeover of residential lots in Flushing by religious institutions and the Salvation Army, to name two community facilities.

The slides have been presented to several civic associations throughout the borough, and the photos of cars parked inches apart on tiny front lawns elicited gasps from the audience in Floral Park.

"Once these houses are gone, they never come back," said Cassell.

To date Community Boards 6,7, 11 and 13 have passed resolutions urging that restrictions be placed on community facilities' ability to move into residential areas.

Community boards and civic leaders have proposed a host of remedies, such as establishing parking requirements based on building size, not on the number of fixed seats in the building as the law currently provides.

Many religious institutions get around the fixed seating rule by using folding chairs, civic leaders have said.

A City Planning Department spokeswoman said there was no imminent announcement of zoning reforms, but City Councilman Tony Avella (D-Bayside), chairman of the Council's Zoning and Franchises subcommittee, said he was "confident that ... we're very close to coming up with something."

Avella has introduced a bill that would allow civic associations and individuals to register deed restrictions with the Buildings Department, a move that would compel the city to consider restrictive covenants when issuing permits for construction.

At present "your only recourse is to go to court privately," said Avella, a move that often fails to prevent development out of character with the neighborhood.

Reach reporter Ayala Ben-Yehuda by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 1-718-229-0300, Ext. 146.

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