Thursday, March 12, 2009

New Development Review Process Delayed

By Conor Greene

The city has agreed to allow more time for public input before launching its development challenge process, which gives the public 30 days to submit formal objections to construction projects.

Following a public hearing in Manhattan last Friday on the new Department of Building procedures, Commissioner Robert LiMandri announced that the launch date for its implementation has been pushed back to mid-April “to ensure adequate time to consider any public input.”

The new guidelines, announced in February, 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,” according to a press release issued by the city.

As part of the new process, New York would 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 would be implemented, during which residents could raise objections to a proposed project.

However, it is that aspect of the process that has concerned some elected officials, civic organizations and residents. There is concern that the 30-day window will create a “defacto statute of limitations” that will “actually benefit unscrupulous developers who will simply wait out the clock to avoid community challenges,” according to Councilman Tony Avella (D-Bayside) and others.

“Despite being touted by Mayor Mike Bloomberg and DOB Commissioner LiMandri as empowering the public with greater oversight over new developments, these rule changes will actually diminish the ability of residents to contest new construction,” said Avella at a press conference on the steps of City Hall, where he was joined by Assemblyman James Brennan (D-Brooklyn) and Councilwoman Rosie Mendez (D-Manhattan).

Avella, a mayoral candidate who currently is chair of the City Council’s Zoning and Franchise Committee, implored the DOB to “scrap this entire plan in its current form and go back to the drawing board.”

Brennan ripped the DOB and city for restricting public zoning complaints, an action he called “indefensible.” He is also concerned that “muzzling the public will encourage developers to submit noncompliant plans” knowing they can proceed with impunity once they get through the one-month threshold. “The public has every right to challenge zoning legality or building safety at any point in the building process,” he said, adding that the DOB must include local community boards in the process and require community notification.

Councilwoman Mendez credited the DOB with providing the public with “long-awaited online access to building plans and zoning diagrams” but agreed that the DOB shouldn’t limit the public’s ability to challenge development. “These rules have far-reaching consequences for our city and should not be implemented without adequate deliberation.”

Moreover, Avella took the opportunity to rip the “shameful” way in which DOB attempted to implement the new process, noting that the department had intended to hold a public hearing last Friday and enact the rules changes this past Monday. “This demonstrated that DOB has absolutely no intention of ever listening to the public’s comments and taking them into consideration,” he said, vowing to formulate legislation “to ensure that the public has greater opportunity to comment in any future agency rule changes.”

The call to allow more time for public input before enacting the new rules was echoed by the Queens Civic Congress, which represents 110 neighborhood groups across Queens.

“The proposal, if adopted unchanged, clearly creates an immunity for the building community” through the 30-day requirement, the group argued in a press release. The group “strongly recommends the DOB reform the proposed changes to avoid what must be an unintended consequence – that would perpetuate illegal and often hazardous development.”

The new proposal also concerns Robert Holden, president of the Juniper Park Civic Association, which has made fighting over-development and unscrupulous developers a priority. “Once again, the deck is stacked against the community. We have absolutely no confidence in the DOB nor do we trust that they are really trying to protect our neighborhoods from greedy developers,” he said. “Their bark is much worse than their bite.”

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