The Civic Scene: Queens zoning czar updates boro’s civics

By Bob Harris

Several months ago the Department of City Planning issued proposed citywide zoning text changes concerning yards and street-tree planting. Many community boards voted against them because they were controversial and were presented so suddenly. There is now a soft sell going on.Many residents have been concerned about the paving or bricking over of front, side and rear yards. There were always regulations as to the size of yards, but none about the amount of yard space that could be paved or how much should be planted. The climate changes going on and the recent flooding in many neighborhoods have caused concern. Rainwater has caused flooding with the resultant flowing of water into basements.One problem has been the fact that the original sewer pipes, which take both house wastewater and rainwater, were built to receive 1 inches of rain per hour but some recent rains have dumped as much as 4 inches per hour. Over the decades, more houses were built and more sidewalks, streets, driveways and yards were paved, and rainwater now often has no place to flow into the ground and relieve the sewers of the occasional volume of a heavy rain.The new regulations will require at least 20 percent of the front yard on narrow lots and 50 percent of the land on lots of 60 feet or larger to be planted. This will be required when new houses are built or an older house has renovations of 20 percent of the size of the building in R1ÐR5 districts. The city wants to prohibit parking in the front of new houses. The civic leaders asked how the Department of Buildings will know which is a new and which is an old house after 10 years. They were told that it might be a problem, but this is a start to improve aesthetics and find a way to let groundwater seep back into the ground.The proposal would require a 30-foot rear yard for new houses. A special Board of Standards and Appeals rear yard permit would be created to allow exceptions. Regretfully, the BSA has been granting exemptions to building size so often in some neighborhoods for builders who use it as an alternate to zoning change that there is a call for restricting the BSA, but that deserves a separate column.There is also a proposal to limit the height of fences to 4 feet around new buildings. This is another attempt to maintain the aesthetics of a community by preserving open spaces that existed when people first moved to the outer boroughs and prior to the building of those McMansions with high walls and high fences that block out the sky. Remember that these rules would not apply to existing buildings – only new ones.Another Department of City Planning proposal was a street-tree text amendment. It is believed that more trees would enhance the aesthetics of a neighborhood, reduce urban heat by shading the area, lessen the impact of cement and brick walls and sidewalks and filter out carbon dioxide and other air pollutants, thus improving the environment. Trees on grassy planting strips between the sidewalks and the gutters would also buffer pedestrians from cars and trucks and reduce the glare of headlights at night.In R1ÐR5 neighborhoods, the city wants trees planted roughly every 25 feet. Builders must plant them at new houses or older houses that are expanded by 20 percent. If there are empty spaces along older streets, the city will plant them as part of the PlaNYC or 2030 Plan proposed by the mayor. When civic leaders originally read this tree planting proposal at community board meetings, they voted against the added expenses. But upon reflection many have realized that a new house or an expansion of several hundred thousand dollars means that a builder could easily afford a couple of hundred dollars for a new tree.My concern is who will take care of the new trees. Currently the city only trims trees every 10 years. They want to bring this down to seven years. Even today many stop signs are blocked by tree limbs. Next spring this will have to be addressed by the Parks Department.Queens Planning Commissioner John Young gave a zoning update. More than 700 blocks were rezoned in Jamaica, St. Albans and Hollis. Forty blocks in Forest Hills and Briarwood were also rezoned. They are working on text changes for the new Historic District of Sunnyside Gardens so the owners can more easily do repairs. At least they are listening to the residents.GOOD AND BAD NEWS OF THE WEEK: An article in the January 2008 Readers Digest says our federal government loses $1 trillion every year to uncollected taxes, unwarranted tax breaks, fraud, pork, corporate welfare, redundant programs and interest on our $49 trillion national debt.

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