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Religious leaders slam Avella landmarking bill

While the City Council voted 47-1-0 on Feb. 2 to pass a "demolition by neglect" bill that would punish neglectful owners of landmarked buildings with financial penalties, leaders of major religious organizations are stepping forward to voice their opposition to the bill, claiming such a law would pose hardships for many of their congregations housed in landmarked structures. The chief resistance to the bill, sponsored by City Councilman Tony Avella (D-Bayside), is coming from the New York Interfaith Commission on Landmarking of Religious Property, whose main members are the Archdiocese of New York and the Diocese of Brooklyn and Queens, the Queens Federation of Churches, and the New York Board of Rabbis. "The archdiocese has been making a major push to various parishes to disseminate misinformation that this legislation prevents them from following their mission," said Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council and supporter of the bill. Rev. N.J. L'Heureux, Jr., the executive director of the Queens Federation of Churches representing 380 congregations in the borough, said he opposed the bill on the grounds that the measure was needless and the preservation standards arbitrary. "This is an unnecessary bill," L'Heureux said. "It gives the Landmarks Commission a level of authority that is extraordinary. It allows them to issue fines with the ease of a parking ticket on the basis of some repair needed that might cause the building to collapse if left unattended. What slight building defect now if left unattended for 30 years wouldn't have a serious impact on the building?" Moreover, under the proposed law it would be difficult for a church to appeal the Landmarks' findings, he said. "There is little way to challenge such a thing on appeal because the presumption is that they know what they're talking about," L'Heureux said. And though all religious buildings, including churches and temples, are subject to the city's Department of Building's regulations, L'Heureux said agency's rules were based on engineering principles, while the Landmarks' standards were not clearly articulated and could be based on subjective standards like aesthetics. "There are absolutely no objective criteria with the Landmarks ( commission)," he said. "They get to create criteria on the fly. It's like trying to pin down a jellyfish." The religious organizations have been lobbying their respective Council members and reaching out to member congregations, and during last week's vote a handful of members said they had been approached by concerned religious leaders. Bankoff called these tactics "fear mongering." "We are asking for watertight conditions in these landmarks," he said. "This is not going to bankrupt churches." Avella, in presenting his bill for a vote, noted that he had heard the concerns of the religious community and promised to work with them on acceptable language while pushing to protect landmarked buildings. He cited the RKO Keith's Theater in Flushing as a worst-case scenario of neglectful ownership. Tommy Huang, the former owner of the landmarked theater, was convicted of a felony count of ignoring asbestos contamination and spilling hundreds of gallons of kerosene in the basement of the historic theater. "When property owners deliberately neglect a landmark and it is destroyed, that landmark is gone forever, never to return," Avella told the Council before the vote. L'Heureux said that while he hoped the bill would be vetoed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, he conceded that his group would be willing to work toward a compromise in the bill's language acknowledging the special financial circumstances many non-profits face, a condition he said he has asked for since the beginning. "We want simply to say in case of a non-profit, the hearing officer at the Environmental Control Board (the court where landmarks owners found in violation would be tried) would be expressly permitted to take into account the fiscal needs of the organization and weigh them against the issues at question," he said. Preservationists said they hoped to reach an accord with the religious leaders. "We want to work with colleagues," Bankoff said. "We know the work in the ministry is very important." Reach reporter Sophia Chang by e-mail at news@timesledger.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 146.

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