December 23, By Christian Murray
Developers are being granted zoning variances by the Building Standards & Appeals with little regard to community board recommendations, civic groups or elected leaders, several council members said last week.
Last week the city council Committee on Governmental Operations heard 10 bills introduced by legislators who want to rein in the BSA, which often grants variances at odds with community boards and elected officials.
“We’ve been plagued by BSA rulings that have gone against the wishes of the board and groups in the neighborhood,” said Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer, who introduced one of the bills.
The issue resurfaced in this neighborhood earlier this year when the BSA approved the Long Island City YMCA’s application to modify an existing zoning variance so it could transfer air rights to an adjacent lot thereby allowing a developer to construct a 17-story hotel at 32-45 Queens Blvd.
Community Board 2 rejected the YMCA’s application arguing that the approval would lead to the construction of a much bigger hotel than otherwise permitted—and would add to an area already saturated with such buildings. However, the community board’s recommendation, which is merely advisory, had no impact.
When the matter was heard by the BSA, very little attention appeared to be paid to the Community Board’s decision, based on a March 8 recording of the testimony. In fact, one of the five BSA board members relied on the lawyer advocating for the YMCA to find out how Community Board 2 ruled on it (see 1:47 in video)—as opposed to the BSA independently retrieving it ahead of time.
The bills that were heard in the city council last week were centered on BSA accountability and how the agency should incorporate public feedback.
“There are no standards as to how the BSA takes into considerations comments or testimony when they rule,” Van Bramer said. Furthermore, he added, when the BSA approves a variance in defiance of the board, it does not have to say why.
Several council members also claim that the BSA is just a rubber stamp for developers. They cited a study conducted by Citizens Union in 2012 that found that the BSA ruled in favor of the applicants 97 percent of the time.
Ryan Singer, the executive director of the BSA, said that those numbers don’t tell the real story. He said that in 2015, that the BSA had 96 pre-application meetings regarding variances, of which only 27 were filed. “We dissuaded 69 potential variance requests,” he said. “We have a rigorous standard for granting variances but we do not waste our time reviewing things that are not viable.”
Van Bramer’s bill would require the BSA to establish a formal procedure to hear all testimony and evidence, and describe how those arguments would be taken into consideration when the board renders its decision.
The BSA is opposed to Van Bramer’s bill arguing that some people give testimony that is way off topic and that it would be unnecessary to address that testimony when a decision is made.
Councilwoman Karen Koslowitz (Forest Hills) has introduced legislation that would require the BSA to provide a written explanation whenever it approves a variance contrary to the recommendations of the community board or borough board.
Currently board decisions are very brief, most agree.
“They’re not writing judicial-style decisions that provide findings of fact or issues of law,” Ben Kallos, chair of the Committee on Governmental Operations, told the NY Press.
Singer said that the BSA does not oppose this but argues that it already takes into consider community board recommendations already.
Other bills include extending the time frame in which developers or the community could appeal a decision rendered by the BSA from 30 days to four months. The Real Estate Board of New York, an influential trade organization that represents the real estate industry, is opposed to it, arguing it could unfairly delay a developer from starting construction. Such delays, the trade group argues, could be costly.
One of the bills would impose a $25,000 fine for a material false statement during the application process. Currently it is not illegal to make inaccurate statements or put forward incorrect drawings, Kallos told NYPress.
The BSA supports the concept, although wants details as to how it would be enforced.
Another bill would require the BSA to post on its website, an interactive map displaying the location of all variances and special permits approved by the agency since January 1, 1996.
Singer said that the BSA has about 20 employees, including the five board members, and it would be “expensive and challenging to maintain” for such a small staff. He said for this reason the BSA opposed it.
Van Bramer said that there is a great deal of opposition to the legislation from a large number of stakeholders.
“Some folks like it the way it where they can largely bypass community concern and override the will of people and elected officials.”
The next step for these bills would be a vote in committee. If they are approved in committee, they would go to the full council for a vote.
Van Bramer wasn’t certain how the bills would fare.
“I will be pushing for all of them; I think they have a good chance of passing.”
To find the bills, click here.