The Civic Scene: Can’t fight City Hall? Civic associations can

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One of the many fighting civics in Queens is the Jamaica Estates Association.

A big issue to the residents of the Jamaica Estates Association, Fresh Meadows, is the enforcement of zoning laws. The community is blessed with large stone homes on large plots of land, and there are many old trees. The problem is that some speculators buy the homes with the goal of adding illegal rooms which they want to rent out for profit.

Some people, often who come from foreign countries where bribes were the accepted way, buy these large majestic houses and decide to make them bigger and "better." They don't look at the large trees and current homes, but want a bigger, square modern house which abuts their neighbors' properties. These new owners obtain a building permit to reconstruct part of the house, then bring in a bulldozer, which is illegal to use, and knock down the whole house some weekend.

The Jamaica Estates Association has been fighting to stop and punish these illegal activities. With the constant efforts of volunteers such as Fran Lieu, zoning, and Dr. Barry Weinberg, chairman of the association's board, and his wife Leslie, many things were done.

They complained so vociferously to the city Department of Buildings that the Queens commissioner, (three commissioners ago) actually came to a meeting in Dr. Weinberg's home to talk about the problem. Working with the Queens Civic Congress, the umbrella organization for the civic associations of Queens, New York City passed a law sharply increasing the fines for illegal construction.

For builders who ignored the fines, the Jamaica Estates Associations worked with the Queens Civic Congress to pass the Illegal Conversion New York State bill to make unpaid fines a tax lien filed against the property after 30 days. This law was supported by State Senator Frank Padavan, who lives in and represents Jamaica Estates, and Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer who represents the Rockaways where illegal activity was rampant in the big old houses there. Governor Pataki signed this into law on June 6 this year.

It goes to show what civics can accomplish if members band together. I know of a dozen civic associations which are unhappy with the enforcement of the zoning laws. The thing is that they work individually to enforce the rules in their communities and cooperate to make the system work better. The new complaint number for the Buildings Department for all of New York City is (212) 227-7000. Calls are answered by an operator from 9 to 5 Monday through Friday and by a directed voice mail system other hours. My question is, Why is there no operator on duty on weekends and holidays when an inspector should be available to deal with illegal activities?

Good and Bad News of the Week

One of the major topics discussed by the candidates for office has been the high cost of medicines and the fact that many older people, who now need more medicines, can't always afford them. It seems that pharmaceutical representatives regularly give away to doctors free pills worth more than $7.2 billion at their retail price. And the companies spend about $1.8 billion on consumer advertising.

I really can't quarrel about giving away free sample because it acquaints doctors with the medicines, and I can't argue against advertising because everyone advertises in one way or another. But I wonder at spending all these billions which have to be made up in the sales price. Couldn't less be spent and the retail prices of all these medicines be lowered, so those who are ill and must choose among rent and food and medicines can afford all three?

Updated 7:16 pm, October 10, 2011
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