More turn a cold shoulder to bigger homes

By Joe Maniscalco

Opponents of the special permits process have finally gotten the community board to rethink its support of the legal loophole which allows homeowners to build beyond existing zoning regulations – it’s just not their own community board that’s had the change of heart. Last week Community Board 15’s neighbors in Bay Ridge overwhelmingly voted to scrap special permits in their neck of the woods. Community Board 10 was one of the five community boards citywide – Com-munity Board 15 among them – who voted to institute special permits back in 1998. But in the view of many in Bay Ridge at least, what may have started out as a good idea in the last century is now being used as an end run around the law, rendering existing regulations designed to preserve the integrity of the housing stock essentially toothless. “Asking to rescind the special permit is not inconsistent,” Community Board 10 Steven Harrison said last week. “While the board approved it initially, now, we see the consequences.” The consequences, ac-cording to opponents, are larger, out-of-scale homes that creep deep into backyards and block out light and air space. Advocates of the permits maintain that they help keep growing young families from fleeing to greener pastures. “There’s movement taking place,” said Ed Jaworski, executive vice-president of the Madison-Marine-Home-crest Civic Associ-ation. “There are concerns about it. We’ve already seen that Community Board 14 has concerns about it, too.” While Community Board 14 Chair Alvin Berk said that he hasn’t seen “any evidence of changing attitudes on our board” toward special permits, he did withdraw the board’s initial support of a special permit application for an Avenue L home back in November, after it was learned that the board had based its decision on incorrect information about what constitutes an “alteration” and a “demolition.” Opponents of special permits have long held that some homeowners were knocking down their homes and applying for special permits by claiming the work performed was only an “alteration.” In a new twist on the special permits process, opponents are now also charging that the legal device has become a real estate marketing tool for homeowners who win permits, and then promptly turn around and put those same properties up for sale. “Applicants are really getting aggressive about violating the limits,” said former Community Board 10 Chair Neil Cohen. “You would think this would be held in check by the BSA [Board of Standards & Appeals], but they’ve abdicated their jurisdictional authorities.” Cohen actually supported special permits back in 1998 when he was at the helm of Community Board 10, but has since amended his views on the process. “There’s always a propensity to push the limits,” he said. “If people are going to build they’re going to want to get every square foot they can out of it. But that leaves regulations in disarray.” Community Board 15 Chair Theresa Scavo also criticized the BSA for turning a blind eye toward special permit abuses and called for community boards to have more oversight power. “You’ve got to limit the expansion and someone’s got to be watching,” she said. “Out in the field I personally don’t see enough people watching.” Outgoing Community Board 10 Chair Greg Eaton called the special permits process a “necessary evil.” “I always support the position taken by the community board, but I personally think that the special permit process is needed in certain limited circumstances,” he said. Scavo said that eliminating special permits in her board would not actually prevent homeowners from trying to build bigger. “Abolishing special permits does not mean that someone is not going to be able to expand their homes,” she said. “There are other resources, more costly and lengthy processes. My feeling is that there is nothing wrong with special permits as long as they are carefully monitored.” But Cohen said it will take nothing short of a “180-degree turn” on behalf of the BSA before any changes are seen on the street. “The BSA is a very political body,” he warned. “They do what they want. But we have a right to say no to more density.” Just last week City Planning demographers gleefully predicted that the Big Apple would become home to 9.1 million people by 2030, and that Brooklyn would continue to be the most populous borough with almost 3 million living within its borders in the next 25 years. City Planning Director Amanda M. Burden said, “This population analysis is vital for us as planners to create the conditions for growth and to meet the challenges that it brings.” “They want to plan for nine million people, why?” Cohen asked. “People can live on Long Island or New Jersey. We don’t have to cram people into every square inch and diminish everybody’s quality of life. They don’t think of neighborhoods and community. Brooklyn could end up looking like Manhattan.” Residents like Jaworski remain committed to protecting the traditional character of their Brooklyn communities. “Maybe people are losing interest in these things,” he said. “Maybe the word is out how much they’ve been abused. This rationale of having to accommodate growing young families is a lot of nonsense.”

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