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The Civic Scene: Avella, Weprin pursue residents’ zoning woes

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Recent articles in the TimesLedger and other newspapers tell of homeowners’ complaining of developers’ buying older homes, tearing them down and building gigantic houses that seem to completely cover the lot and tower over neighboring residences. People are calling these large buildings “McMansions.”

Neighbors on 210th Street said the developer has been able to build larger because he claimed that the first floor is open recreation, open laundry or study space. This building in an R-2 neighborhood is much larger than what is legally permitted in an R-2 one-family area. Neighbors said this “open” space will be turned into illegal rooms. The Department of Buildings said it does not want to speculate.

The problem is that there are not enough building inspectors, even though the department earns far more money for the city than it spends. The solution is to hire more inspectors and send them to examine these homes a year later to see if the owners are following the zoning laws. Yet those who are caught cheating are not punished enough. Engineers are not punished enough for doing illegal things. We do not read about people going to jail or being heavily fined.

A former civic leader recently complained that a $5,000 fine sometimes only ends up being a $100 fine. Even a $5,000 fine is nothing to a speculator who does something illegal and expects to make several hundred thousand dollars on the property.

In Jamaica Estates there are holes in the ground where fine old homes once stood. There also are massive homes built in the Jamaica Estates and adjacent Cunningham Park neighborhoods. Civic leaders in Hillcrest are watching homes being sold to builders who want to build two-family residences where one-family homes once stood.

Articles detail the real estate boom that is the bright spot in our city economy. What is questionable is the source of the money that permits people to buy $600,000 houses, tear them down and spend another $600,000 to build gigantic homes. These new houses are not conforming to the size of the present houses.

The new structures have little or no grass, trees or bushes, and they block out the light to neighboring homes. The former bucolic neighborhood becomes an asphalt and cement jungle. People came to Queens because it had a suburban look, but now our borough is becoming like Manhattan. People are nervous and angry.

In Bayside, homeowners are putting signs on their lawns that say, “Stop the destruction of historic Douglaston! Fight the developers!”

And except for possibly the Klein Farm, Fresh Meadows cannot be registered as a historic district. Councilman David Weprin’s (D-Hollis) attempts to make the Klein Farm a historic district were turned down.

Weprin, however, is not the only elected official taking action to protect Queens neighborhoods. Councilman Tony Avella (D-Bayside) hired Paul Graziano, an urban planning consultant and preservationist, to survey his north Queens district to see which areas’ zoning requirements allow for building that is out of character with the rest of the neighborhood. He wants to downzone areas to prevent mismatched houses from being erected.

Avella’s next step is to get the city to downzone the designated areas. This is a zoning problem about which homeowners have to be concerned. This is why people join civic and block associations. I hope Avella and Councilman John Liu (D-Flushing) can work together to fix the zoning problems.

Good and bad news of the week

I recently read an article that said that many sport utility vehicles are performing better on rollover tests conducted by federal regulators. The article said the SUVs were tested in a different way so I am suspicious of the results. One problem with SUVs is that they tend to turn over on sharp turns.

It seems that these vehicle turnovers kill about 10,000 Americans every year, accounting for about one-third of vehicle accident deaths. Some experts want SUVs to be classified as trucks and made to be more fuel efficient, but Congress did not pursue this issue.

I am concerned about the size of SUVs and their density. One cannot see through them as one can see through cars and know what is coming behind them. An SUV parked on a corner presents a very dangerous situation, as it obstructs a driver’s view of cars coming down the street and forces other vehicles to drive past the corner in order to see.

Updated 7:02 pm, October 10, 2011
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