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Council committee okays restrictions on facilities

The City Council’s Land Use Committee approved the first major changes to the city’s zoning resolution in more than 40 years Tuesday, a day after several of Queens’ most prominent activists voiced their support for the proposal designed to restrict the growth of community facilities in residential neighborhoods.

Tuesday’s nearly unanimous vote paved the way for the Department of City Planning to conduct an environmental review of the measure, the culmination of more than a year of negotiations between the Council and the City Planning Department.

At a hearing Monday of the City Council’s Zoning and Franchises Subcommittee chaired by Councilman Tony Avella (D-Bayside), members of the Queens Civic Congress and activists from all over the city donned stickers reading “Community Facility Reform Now” as they described the proliferation of houses of worship, group homes and medical offices in residential areas.

“In some Queens neighborhoods, medical offices, clinics and outpatient treatment centers march in lockstep down residential streets,” said Pat Dolan, executive vice president of the Queens Civic Congress, an umbrella group of more than 100 civic organizations in the borough.

New outpatient medical offices and clinics will no longer be allowed in the lowest-density residential areas under the proposal, and would be limited to 1,500 square feet as of right and up to 10,000 square feet with a Board of Standards and Appeals variance in residential areas with higher density.

Cellar space used as a medical facility, not for storage, would also generate a new parking requirement under the measure.

Parking requirements for houses of worship in low-density residential areas would be based on building capacity, a change from the current formula that bases parking spaces on the number of fixed seats in the building. Religious institutions have skirted the fixed-seat formula by using folding chairs.

Houses of worship will have to provide one parking space for every 10 people based on capacity in the lowest-density districts and one space for every 15 people in slightly higher-density areas.

Another element of the agreement would reduce the number of low-density residential neighborhoods into which community facilities would be allowed to build rear-yard expansions.

The proposal would also make it easier for houses of worship to locate in manufacturing zones.

After the Land Use Committee’s vote to pass the measure, the City Planning Department was poised to conduct a six-month environmental review, after which the proposal will go to the community boards and eventually back to the full City Council for a vote.

At the Monday hearing, Queens Council members Melinda Katz (D-Forest Hills), Eric Gioia (D-Woodside), Leroy Comrie (D-St. Albans) and Avella listened to community members and queried city planners about various parts of the proposal.

The Bay Terrace Community Alliance, Douglaston Civic Association, Little Neck Pines Association, Greater Whitestone Taxpayers Association, North Flushing Civic Association, West Cunningham Park Civic Association and Southeast Queens Concerned Neighbors were among the civic groups who testified at the hearing.

Though roundly praised by those in attendance, some elements of the measure drew concern from community leaders.

Irving Poy, associate director of Queens Borough President Helen Marshall’s Office of Planning and Development, questioned the provision allowing medical offices to receive variances of as much as 10,000 square feet in certain residential areas.

“The maximum allowable floor area under this special permit should be reduced to a number that is more consistent with the maximum bulk allowable for residential homes in these districts,” said Poy.

Corey Bearak of the Queens Civic Congress disagreed with the continued allowance for medical offices to operate from health care providers’ one-family houses, calling such facilities “an anomaly” in residential neighborhoods.

Ruth DuBerry of Southeast Queens Concerned Neighbors said her area was saturated with homeless shelters, and requested that more attention be paid to the future siting of those institutions.

“We are committed to addressing the rest of the issues,” said Avella.

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

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