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Whitestone residents fume over lawn plan

At the beginning of the year, Mario Veljak of Whitestone noticed city workers taking measurements of what he believed to be his front lawn.

But when he began inquiring about what the workers were doing, the answer he got disturbed him: the front end of the lawn was not his at all, but city property slated to become part of a road.

"Thirty years here, you put all your money in your house," he said. "Now all the dreams are going down the drain."

Veljak is one of 11 homeowners on 20th Avenue who recently were told by the city that part of their lawns were being taken away to widen their street.

Veljak lives on 20th Avenue in between the Whitestone Expressway and Parsons Boulevard, a short stretch of road that has drawn many complaints involving traffic congestion.

Since the College Point Corporate Park opened on the opposite side of the expressway several years ago, residents living on 20th Avenue have seen an increase of traffic on the street, one of the only means of reaching the big-box retailers, offices and industry in the park.

In an attempt to relieve that congestion, the city has come up with a plan to widen the two-block stretch of 20th Avenue from the expressway to Parsons Boulevard, a heavily used road.

Each direction on 20th Avenue currently has only one wide lane. Vehicles traveling from the expressway often look to make a left turn onto Parsons Boulevard. But with no left-turn lane, cars waiting to turn often cause a backup on 20th Avenue, said Lisi de Bourbon, a spokesman for the city DOT.

In order to alleviate this problem, the city plans to widen 20th Avenue to two lanes in each direction and create a left-turn lane onto Parsons Boulevard.

"It will dramatically improve circulation in that neighborhood," de Bourbon said.

The $2 million project is slated to begin in late 2004 or early 2005 and will take about six months to complete, de Bourbon said.

Under the plan, the city will widen the street by about 10 feet on the north side of the street and by a few feet on the south side. Seven families live on the north side, while four families live alongside a nursing home on the south side.

The city actually owns the 20 feet of property on the north side of 20th Avenue and is simply making use of what it already owns, de Bourbon said. She added that the DOT plans to use only 10 feet, half of its property on the north side of the street, in an effort to minimize the impact on the homeowners.

"None of this is going to affect anybody's private property," she said.

But the homeowners are not happy with the city's explanation.

"We were under the impression that [the property] was ours," said Rosemarie Veljak, Mario's wife. "This land was never claimed by the city."

The Veljaks' lawn now is only about 20 feet wide. Rosemarie Veljak said with the loss of the 10 feet, her family would not have room to park their car in their driveway.

Rosemarie Veljak said the city had talked about building a bridge over the expressway at 25th Road when the corporate park was being built, but never did because it was too costly.

"Now they are trying to do a butcher job to save themselves money," she said.

The Veljaks and their neighbors have formed the 20th Avenue Homeowners Association. The association has written to local politicians and contacted an attorney with an alternative plan.

The group proposes taking property from both the Mobil gas station at the south corner of 20th Avenue and Parsons Boulevard and the park at the north corner of 20th Avenue and the Whitestone Expressway Service Road. The additional property would create room for right turning lanes, preventing a backup of traffic without touching the homeowners' lawns, said Rosemarie Veljak.

"We are saying that there has to be an alternative," she said.

The homeowners have found a sympathetic ear in Community Board 7. Marilyn Bitterman, the district manager of CB 7, said the city's work "desperately needed to be done," but nevertheless she hoped to come up with a compromise. She advocated taking a little more property from the south side of the street and a little less from the north side.

"When the homeowners purchased their homes, they didn't realize they were in the city's right of way," she said.

Reach reporter Alexander Dworkowitz by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 141.

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