By Alex Robinson
Tenants of the historic Klein farm in Fresh Meadows accepted responsibility for cutting down trees and altering the driveway of the property without permits at a hearing Tuesday.
A stop-work order and a violation had been issued to the property’s owner, Audrey Realty, by the city Department of Buildings in December for “illegal tree removal, work without a permit” and “substantial modification of existing landscaping in a special district,” according to the DOB.
Ziming Shen, who owns the Preschool of America that occupies the farm, at 194-15 73rd Ave., attended the Environmental Control Board hearing instead of the property’s owner, Henry Huang, son of notorious Queens developer Thomas Huang.
Shen acknowledged that at least two trees had been cut down and the driveway had been altered, but insisted it was to ensure the safety of the children who attended the facility.
“We tried to do our best. We don’t know exactly what kind of special zoning it is,” he said. “We want to provide a safe environment for our children and parents.”
It was not known how many trees were removed.
The Klein farm, Queens’ last family-owned working farm, sits in the Fresh Meadows Special Planned Community Preservation District, meaning no substantial changes can be made to the property without the consent of the City Planning Commission.
Shen contended the trees were cut down because of damage Superstorm Sandy had caused and because one tree was hollow inside and infested with raccoons.
One of Shen’s employees, Stephanie Zhu, gave testimony at the hearing and said she tried to get in touch with city agencies to get permission to cut down the trees at the direction of Shen’s wife, Joanne Fan.
She claimed she spoke to someone at DOB on the phone as well as the city Parks Department, who told her she did not need their permission. She said she also sent letters to the two agencies requesting permission to cut down the trees. She said she did not follow up in person, but received an e-mail response from a Parks official.
But she did not attempt to contact the City Planning Commission, which would be the proper authority to contact, said Vivian Currie, the attorney representing DOB.
“The law is pretty straightforward,” Currie said. “Before anything is cut, there has to be something from the City Planning Commission in terms of permits. None was gotten here and none was actually sought. The purported communication was wrongly directed because the entity that should be spoken to is the City Planning Commission.”
Currie said Zhu’s communications with city agencies and Shen’s arguments were excuses but not legal defenses.
Shen is no stranger to these kinds of proceedings as in 2005 he was issued a DOB violation for failing to comply with a “special purpose district” and removing trees at a property he owned in Staten Island, according to DOB records. He was forced to pay a $350 penalty.
In April 2012, Shen and his wife were convicted of embezzling more than $3 million in federal funds meant for children’s lunches at the couple’s Red Apple Child Development Center chain, which operates around the city, according to court documents filed by the U.S. attorney.
Judge Michelle Manzione, of the Environmental Control Board, will now make a decision as to whether the respondents will receive a fine for the violation and work without a permit.
The standard ECB fine for each violation at the Klein farm is $800 and the default fine is $4,000, according to the ECB website.
The felled trees fueled outrage among the farm’s neighbors when they noticed the trees had been cut down in the fall.
“I hope the judge will appreciate our cause of preserving this jewel of our community,” said Tammy Osherov, a Community Board 8 member who lives near the Klein farm and said she witnessed the trees being cut down.
Reach reporter Alex Robinson by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 718-260-4566.