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Special Permits Spark Furor At Community Board 15

The ticking time bomb known as special permits finally went off at Community Board 15 last week, leaving both sides of the issue upset and the group’s chairperson Jerry O’Shea at odds with many of his fellow board members. As promised, members of Madison-Marine Civic and their supporters presented a petition to the board calling for the re-examination of the entire special permits process. Community Board 15 became one of only a handful of boards across the city to adopt the process back in 1998, which allows homeowners to build beyond existing zoning requirements. Critics of special permits, however, charge that abuses of the system are destroying the unique character of their one and two-family home neighborhoods by allowing huge additions to be tacked onto existing homes. The debate brought back former Community Board 15 Chair and chair of the Zoning, Variance & Special Permits Committee Maurice Kolodin to his old stomping grounds inside Kingsborough Community College. A member of the board back in ’98 when the special permits process was adopted, Kolodin said that at the time the system now being contested was brand new and no one really knew if it was going to be “good or bad.” He recommended that Community Board 15 revisit the issue of special permits, suggesting that they might serve some neighborhoods while harming others. “Let’s see what ‘06’s opinion is versus the last century,” Kolodin said. Bernadette Morrisey, a 34-year resident of Community Board 15, said that the special permits process favored younger families at the expense of older residents. Proponents of the special permits process often state that the ability to enlarge homes beyond existing zoning regulations keeps younger families – and their tax dollars – in the borough. But Morrisey argued that there was no reason to believe that any of those families would stay in the neighborhood as long as older residents who have already invested decades in the borough. “Older residents in this community for 20 years or more are tired of being pushed around,” she said. Marilyn Schan recently bought her home in Gravesend specifically because she was attracted to the one and two-family homes in the neighborhood. “I don’t think I would have moved here if I had known things were changing,” she told board members. “Blocks are being overwhelmed. It’s affecting the quality of life.” Like Schan, young Neil Eisenberg said that he and his wife were also drawn to the district’s one and two-family homes. “The neighborhood offered the size and type of house we were looking for,” he said, But, Eisenberg added, new families like his who move into a neighborhood expecting to change existing zoning regulations just to suit their own ends were “inconsiderate and irresponsible.” Arthur Gersheeld, who advocated for special permits in Manhattan Beach because they allowed extended families to live close by each other, conceded that there were examples of “over building.” However, he said, “Changing times demand different measures. Different people have different styles.” After months of silence in which he says he was studying the issue, City Councilmember Lew Fidler finally spelled out his position on Community Board 15’s special permits process. “I am not against special permits,” Fidler stated. In outlining his position, the councilman said that the process was not perfect, and that there were areas laid out by the Board of Standards & Appeals that needed to be “codified.” “What’s permitted and what’s not permitted should be made clearer,” Fidler said, adding that the BSA should not operate like the Supreme Court of the United States. Animosity between board members and visiting members of the neighborhood once again boiled over as supporters of Madison-Marine Civic challenged assertions that outrageous abuses of the special permits process were a rarity, and that most of the over building seen throughout the community was the result of illegal projects. “I think you ought to get your heads on straight,” O’Shea barked at one point before having a security guard eject one woman from the meeting space. “Most of the damage has already been done.” Later, he threatened to do the same to board member Joel Garson. Treasurer Joyce Arberman, meanwhile, called the Madison-Marine Civic supporters who filled half the Kingsborough Community College dining room, a bunch of “disrespectful zealots.” In a close vote - with more than a few members missing - Community Board 15 voted down an official motion by board member Eileen O’Brien calling for the reexamination of the special permits process. That vote came despite O’Shea’s pledge at the top of the meeting that the community board’s Zoning, Variance and Special Permits Committee would, indeed, examine the special permits process, and that some kind of finding could be expected at the next meeting of the community board. “I don’t care how they vote,” O’Shea told District Manager Ben Akselrod. “I’m going to do it.” Madison-Marine Civic’s Ed Jaworski expressed disappointment with the outcome of the meeting. “While I don’t deny their rights to their opinions, it was evident that the 14 opposing the resolution did not approach their votes with any degree of real objectivity,” he said. How do they deny a problem’s existence when so many people voice opposition meeting after meeting, case after case, in the media, at the BSA and in petition. “It’s truly like a tree falling in the forest.”

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