Thursday, February 12, 2009

Avella Questions New Building Regulations

Construction Plans Will be Available Online

By Conor Greene

The city Department of Buildings has announced reforms intended to increase public scrutiny of construction projects, but one local official argues the new rules will actually diminish the ability of citizens to contest illegal projects.

The new guidelines, announced recently by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and DOB Commissioner Robert LiMandri, are intended to “give New Yorkers a stronger voice in the development of neighborhoods, create greater transparency and clarify the process for the public and for developers.”

As part of the new process, New York will become the first city in the nation to require that developers place diagrams of new buildings or major alterations online so the public can view the size and scale of a proposed project.

In addition, a new 30-day formal public challenge period will be implemented “to give the public a greater voice in the development process and provide clarity for developers about when and how a project can move forward,” according to a release issued by the city.

However, Councilman Tony Avella (D-Bayside), who is challenging Mayor Bloomberg this fall, immediately issued a statement voicing concerns with the new regulations. He argues it will limit the public’s ability to fight illegal projects due to the 30-day statute of limitations created by the review window.

“While I believe that the posting of online diagrams for proposed development on DOB’s website is definitely a step in the right direction and leads to greater transparency, I completely disagree with the new development challenge process,” said Avella. “Despite being touted… as empowering the public with greater oversight over new developments, it is actually diminishing the ability of residents to contest new construction by creating a defacto statute of limitations through the implementation of the 30-day comment period.”

Avella, a fierce critic of the DOB who has made fighting overdevelopment a focal point of his time on City Council, is worried that the procedure “will in effect actually benefit unscrupulous developers who will simply wait out the clock to avoid community challenges.”

When announcing the reforms, Mayor Bloomberg insisted they would “inject a much-needed dose of transparency and accountability into a critical area of construction and development – zoning compliance… The reforms center on the public’s right to challenge any approved development if they think it violates local zoning regulations.”

Under the regulations, diagrams for any new building or major enlargement approved by the DOB would be uploaded to the agency’s website. Residents would then have 30 calendar days to review and challenge the development approval. Once that window closes, the DOB Borough Commissioner will address any challenges to the project that have been lodged. If a challenge is determined to have merit, “appropriate enforcement action will be taken, including issuing Stop Work Orders, revoking of permits and requiring redesigns of the proposed construction.”

If the Borough Commissioner determines that a challenge is invalid, the public will be given an additional 15 calendar days to appeal to the First Deputy Commissioner. Once that decision is rendered, the public can appeal to the Board of Standards and Appeals(BSA).

The provision granting the BSA final determination also concerns Avella. “It is extremely inappropriate for the final appeal in the public review process to have to be brought before the Board of Standards and Appeals, which throughout its existence has essentially been a rubber stamp for developers,” he said. “BSA repeatedly ignores the public’s opinion and there is no reason to believe that they will act differently in this process.”

Locally, the BSA recently came under fire after granting a cellular company permission to install a radio tower on top of a two-story home in a residential area of Maspeth.

“This is just the latest example of the Bloomberg administration’s failed attempts to reform this agency,” said Avella. “In order to have true reform, DOB needs to be held accountable for their actions and must also allow greater community involvement, both of which will not be accomplished by this development challenge process that actually substantially limits the ability of New Yorkers to submit complaints or question the actions of DOB.”

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