By Bob Harris
The Board of Standards and Appeals (BSA) is a five-member city agency, appointed by the mayor, whose purpose is to pass or reject variances to the zoning laws in a location when an owner wants to weaken the zoning and build more than the zoning permits.
The BSA was created decades ago when the old Board of Estimate was declared unconstitutional.
Civic associations have long felt that the BSA was unfair in granting builders too many variances, ignoring the votes from community boards, and thus changing the character of communities and decreasing the quality of life. Hearings about variances to the zoning law can be held at local community boards and the borough president’s board, but the final decision is made by the Board of Standards and Appeals. Fighting their decisions in court costs about $30,000 for each case.
Civic leaders have fought for reforms in the BSA for decades. Finally, several Council members throughout the city have succeeded in getting nine bills passed by the City Council and signed by Mayor de Blasio. City Council Majority Leader Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside) hailed the new laws as examples of increased community input and increased accountability and transparency of the BSA.
A bill, now law, introduced by Council member Karen Koslowitz (D-Forest Hills) will require the BSA to include responses to the community boards and borough boards, due to their recommendations on a variance, be included in the written decisions on cases.
A bill by Councilman Donavan Richards (D-Laurelton) requires that the BSA place copies of applications and related materials on given cases on its website, as well as give them to the local councilmember. Another new law by Councilmember Steven Matteo requires the BSA to notify people six months prior to when their variances will expire or face penalties. Community board members are often annoyed when an owner of a property comes in to ask for a new variance and they find that the previous one had expired years ago.
Councilman Ben Kallos (D-District 5) had a bill which requires applicants for variances to demonstrate that the situation is a unique one in the neighborhood. A stipulation that if the applicant lies, he or she faces a fine of up to $15,000, which may be too low for a property worth $1 or 2 million. There is also the problem that some developers just don’t pay the fine and there is no mechanism to make them pay. Perhaps any such fine should become a lien on the property after, say, six months.
Councilman Kallos had introduced 4 other bills which were designed to make the BSA more open. One requires the Department of City Planning to appoint a coordinator who would testify in defense of existing zoning rules and have the testimony be on the internet. Thus, there would be information a civic association could use if they decided to sue against any change. A certified state real estate appraiser would be available to analyze financial information. Too many developers apply for a variance saying they would lose money on their property without the ability to build bigger, although many civic leaders feel developers knew what they bought.
To make things more transparent, another law requires that all locations which received special permits or variances since 1998 be viewable on a New York City map. It is also now required that the BSA bi-annually report the average time it takes to make a decision on an application, as well as the total number approved and denied, and the number of pre-application meetings requested. An old trick by lawyers for applicants was to come to pre-application meetings and hear what the BSA members were saying and pull their application if the case seemed to be going against them. They could then re-write the application and there would be no written information about the negative aspects of the application if they had gone to the original hearing.
Hopefully, these new laws will help maintain our quality of life.