By Ayala Ben-Yehuda
The Buildings Department’s Queens commissioner felt the wrath of Bayside residents on overdevelopment and illegal construction Tuesday night but said his agency enforced the law within its jurisdiction.
Queens Buildings Commissioner Magdi Mossad and David Nussbaum, director of intergovernmental and community affairs for the agency, answered residents’ questions at a Bayside Hills Civic Association meeting at the Colonial Church of Bayside.
Some residents wanted to know how Flushing developer Thomas Huang was still in business after having been convicted in 1999 of ignoring asbestos contamination and spilling hundreds of gallons of fuel oil in the basement of the RKO Keith’s movie theater.
“Why do you issue any building permits to him at all?” asked one man, comparing the granting of permits to Huang to allowing a convicted child molester to open a preschool.
Huang, who recently bought Klein Farm in Fresh Meadows, attempted to subdivide a lot on 223rd Street in Bayside into four separate properties, but his request was rejected by the Buildings Department.
“At the Buildings Department I cannot say ‘You are a criminal,’” said Mossad. “The Buildings Department is not a court.”
Emphasizing that his office issued permits based on the legality of plans presented to them, Mossad said, “I cannot base my approval or disapproval based on expectation.”
Councilman Tony Avella (D-Bayside) said he had discussed with state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer the possibility of banning future development by a builder “if there is a pattern of abuse,” a plan to which Spitzer was amenable, he said.
Several people at the meeting said the department should not be approving building plans in the first place if they contain elements such as basement plumbing and gas pipes that could be used for illegal conversions, or the changing of a legal building to a non-permitted use.
“This community does not have the luxury of time,” said resident Tom Reale. “You must have the expertise to look at a plan and see that a rat is there.”
“You have a responsibility and we want you to take that responsibility on,” said Jack Niedermeyer, another resident.
Avella said part of the problem was that there were not enough Buildings Department inspectors.
Nussbaum said “you are governed within your limitations. We cannot be there everywhere.”
In his opening remarks, Mossad said the top two complaints he received were about illegal conversions and overdevelopment, or the razing of smaller homes for far larger dwellings.
He said the Buildings Department’s special inspections unit for illegal conversions did 90 percent of its work in Queens.
But gaining access to inspect buildings was “our biggest concern right now,” said Mossad.
Nussbaum suggested people call 311 and register a complaint if they see extra doorbells, mailboxes and gas meters on buildings — a tip-off that more than one family may be occupying a one-family home.
Any structural changes to a building require a posted permit, said Nussbaum.
Penalties for non-hazardous first offenses can run from $500 to $800 for each violation, he said.
As for overdevelopment, since many large houses on small lots were legal under old zoning laws, “you may raise your concerns to your elected officials,” said Mossad, citing a proposed contextual rezoning of Avella’s district.
The councilman said loopholes, such as allowing a developer to exempt recreation space from the total square footage count of a house, also needed to be closed.
Reach reporter Ayala Ben-Yehuda by e-mail at email@example.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 146.