By Bob Harris

Four years ago, a developer bought a lot on Union Turnpike near the old St. Joseph’s Hospital with a zoning of R3-2, which permits houses or low-rise attached houses. Wanting to make more money by building higher, the builder proposed a zoning change so a four-floor building as tall as 40 feet with apartments above and stores below could be built. Civic association leaders, always wary of zoning changes, higher buildings and increased traffic and congestion, opposed this proposal.

With the help of a facilitator law firm, a plan was hatched to set up a scare tactic to get the desired zoning change. Using the community facilities rules of the city Zoning Resolution, plans for a 10-story community facility shaped like a pyramid were presented. A community facility can be built “as of right,” since it is for the benefit of the community at large.

Community facilities can be hospitals, medical offices, houses of worship, group homes, schools and other buildings. The reason civic association leaders often oppose community facilities is that they are built in residential neighborhoods, can be larger than the surrounding houses with cars using these facilities disrupting nearby homeowners by taking up parking spaces, block driveways and increase traffic and pollution.

The legal facilitator and the developer then talked about the 10-story building they could build if they did not get the four-story building they wanted and went to all the neighbors with this scare tactic. Not surprisingly, the nearby residents came to Community Board 8 to say they wanted the smaller building, which is what the developer wanted in the first place.

What the residents did not know was that this proposed 10-story community facility could only have medical- or community facility-type offices, since it would be a community facility and could not be rented out for plain commercial uses if medical uses were not found. People did not know there is not that much demand for medical space in this part of Queens.

The vote for the smaller building at CB 8 was 17-14.

This issue is being mentioned because people buy homes in a community, even if they do not know the zoning, but they do know they want certain types of buildings in their neighborhood with adequate parking, lighting and air, trees, lawns and ambience. When builders buy properties and ask for a zoning change or a variance for their properties’ zoning, they can change the quality of life in a neighborhood, which residents did not desire when they moved into the neighborhood.

The word “variance” was just used. It means an owner of a property can have the zoning changed for some economic hardship. Builders will often buy a property they know can only have a building of a limited size, then ask for a variance to the zoning to build a bigger property using the excuse that they are losing money.

A five-member body appointed by the mayor, the city Board of Standards and Appeals has the right to grant a variance to a property so a bigger building can be built. Builders employ a facilitator to go to the BSA to get variances for their properties. Too often the BSA grants variances against the wishes of civic or block associations. We will see who the new mayor appoints to the BSA.

GOOD NEWS OF THE WEEK: The new administration did good in dealing with Hercules, the name given to our first snowstorm, with up to 11 inches in some part of Queens. The new city schools chancellor even made the call to close schools at 4 a.m. so teachers who had a long trip from home to school did not start out.

BAD NEWS OF THE WEEK: Too many people are doing illegal things. More than 100 city workers have been charged with grand larceny for faking disability claims.

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