Padavan bill would take bite out of McMansions

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State Sen. Frank Padavan (R-Bellerose) and state Assemblyman Brian McLaughlin (D-Flushing) earlier this month introduced bills in both houses of the Legislature that would eliminate tax breaks to people who demolish smaller homes and build larger ones on the same site. The legislation, which would limit the tax breaks to governmentally approved programs or properties located within census-defined poverty zones, was to go to the Assembly Ways and Means Committee Wednesday.

"We want it to apply where it is needed and not to enable people to build these big houses," Padavan said of the legislation, which is the same in both chambers.

The proliferation of huge houses on average-sized Queens lots has riled residents across the borough and unleashed calls for measures to retain the character of established neighborhoods.

Since 1978, state legislation has given property owners who build a new home or expand an existing one a break on taxes for the increased value of the property.

Under current law, during construction, owners continue to pay the same amount of property tax for which they were liable before the improvements, reconstruction or conversion. Once construction is completed, owners get another two years of freedom from tax on the increased value. Then for the following six years, taxes on the increased value of the property are gradually phased in in increasing percentages.

"Why should we be in the business of giving tax exemptions to people who are building things that can destroy the fabric of a neighborhood," McLaughlin said.

In some instances, the tax exemption or abatement does not just give builders a break, it could encourage them to go bigger: The tax exemptions, known as 421-b benefits, set the bar for exemption eligibility at a 40 percent increase in assessed value of the property. In order to qualify for the exemption, a $200,000 property had to become a $280,000 one, not a $220,000 one.

"(The houses) are completely out of character with whatever the community is," said Oscar Berenberg, president of the Lost Community Civic Association in Floral Park. "They're grossly oversized and they don't have the amenities."

Berenberg said the supersized houses, commonly referred to as McMansions, often lack driveways because owners build "the house from property line to property line."

The enlarged houses, he said, also place an enormous strain on public utilities, such as water, sewer lines and electric service, which are sized for the more modest homes that already exist in his Floral Park and New Hyde Park neighborhood.

"City officials have been grappling with this for a long time, but I believe the state has to be part of the solution, too," said City Councilman James Gennaro (D-Fresh Meadows). We need the state on board to hand this very serious problem."

Gennaro, who said three of the eight houses on his own block are or will soon be McMansions, applauded the state lawmakers' efforts: "We've got a problem, so I'll take the help."

The Assembly bill was scheduled to leave the Real Property Tax Committee, which McLaughlin chairs, Wednesday and to then move on to Ways and Means Committee. From there it will go the Assembly floor for a vote.

Padavan's Senate bill is currently in the Senate Housing, Construction an Community Development Committee.

It is expected that both the Senate and Assembly bills will be ready for the governor to sign by summer.

Padavan, who had worked on many bills related to the tax abatement program, said the time had come for amendments to it. "I was seeing that it was being abused," he said.

"People are spending huge sums of money to build these monster houses and then they're turning around and getting abatements," Padavan said. "That's an insult to everyone around them."

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

Updated 7:04 pm, October 10, 2011
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