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North Corona still fighting to protect area’s character

After decades of wrangling, the city approved a zoning change that limited future buildings to six stories, down from the 12 stories community board members said were permitted before.

But when a developer went before Community Board 3 last week seeking approval to construct a four-story, eight-family apartment building along 39th Avenue, it became clear that for many, the original North Corona downzoning had not gone far enough.

"I thought the zoning we enacted was designed to prevent this," said board member John Moran of the proposed building at 100-23 39th Ave.

It did not and does not, said Giovanna Reid, district manager for Community Board 3, which covers Jackson Heights, North Corona and East Elmhurst.

In fact, if the proposed building -- which in a 24-12 vote the board eventually approved with some caveats -- did not happen to sit on land where the city at one time had plans to build a street, the developer could have put the apartment up without asking anyone, she said.

"This is an as-of-right development," said Sol Korman, a representative of the Augusta group, which is developing the property. Korman also said the plans call for only four parking spaces as zoning requires.

"If you don't have laws, you can do anything you want," Korman said, pointing out that the plans conformed to the area's current zoning.

"When the North Corona rezoning was put in place, there were many parts we were not pleased with," said board member Grace Lawrence. "We had a lot of discussions because that proposal was not A-1."

Reid said that efforts to rezone the district to limit development to the current level had been on the table for more than three decades before they were enacted.

Even when the zoning resolution passed the City Council in September 2003, Reid said, many community board members thought it was not restrictive enough. But with development looming, something was better than nothing, she said.

"Many of the members of the community wanted to see some sections have a lower density," Reid said. "That's why we'll have to review that."

Although downzoning has received considerable attention in much of eastern Queens, Reid said the issue has always been important in and around the East Elmhurst, North Corona and Jackson Heights areas, which Community Board 3 covers.

"We just don't get the coverage," said Reid, who added that she intended to send a letter to the mayor outlining her concerns.

The board voted to approve the apartment building provided the developer redesigns it to rise only three stories and contain only six units. Although the neighborhood is dominated by one- and two-story, single family homes, several three-story buildings sit just blocks away from the proposed construction site.

The board's recommendations, however, are not binding and can be overridden by the Board of Standards and Appeals.

During the meeting, the Board of Standards and Appeals drew criticism for what some considered its willingness to make concessions to developers.

"If we reject this, the Board of Standards and Appeals - as they have in the past - will permit this regardless of how we vote tonight," board member Jimmy Smith said.

City Councilman Tony Avella (D-Bayside) has introduced legislation that would give the body oversight over the actions of the BSA.

Board member Martin Maier, an urban planner with experience in a number of states, publicly asked the board to keep a close eye on the progress of the Avella legislation, saying he had never seen an agency such as the Board of Standards and Appeals that did not have some oversight.

Moran agreed.

"We do not like the way the Board of Standards and Appeals will disregard the zoning," Moran said. "It's become an entity that is not accountable to anybody."

Reach reporter James DeWeese by e-mail at news@timesledger.com, or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 157.

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