Our Town The four top zoning bills by Madeleine Thompson
The four top zoning bills
New legislation aims to regulate the Board of Standards and Appeals
A package of 10 zoning-related bills could give communities more power to fight decisions made by the Board of Standards and Appeals (BSA). Variances that exempt developers from the zoning code and permits for things like after-hours construction are granted through the agency, sometimes despite vocal opposition from local residents and the community board. On Wednesday, Dec. 14, the City Council’s Committee on Governmental Operations discussed legislation that would, for example, slow the approval process for new developments in the BSA. Sponsored by Council Members Ben Kallos, James Van Bramer, Karen Koslowitz, Steven Matteo, Donovan Richards and Rosie Mendez, the legislation proposes to give communities more time and weight in BSA decisions. According to BSA executive director Ryan Singer, who testified at the hearing last week, the board has only 21 employees who use a “rigorous standard” to handle between 300 and 500 applications per year. Our Town spoke to committee chair Kallos about four bills that, if passed, would have the most impact.
Steep fines for lying
Sponsored by Kallos, Int. 1392-2016 would impose a $25,000 fine on anyone “who makes a materially false statement or causes a materially false statement to be made in connection with a zoning application.” Singer said last week that “the applicant community is by and large honest and careful, but we think having these additional tools would be helpful.” Kallos said he was most proud of this bill, which is one of five he sponsors in the package. “That’s an error, an omission or an intentional misrepresentation in any part of the BSA application,” he said, adding that this is something he has experienced before. “Currently it is not illegal to have drawings and other representations that the community may rely on in making decisions that may be inaccurate because they haven’t been sworn to. This would change that. In addition, this would also set specific pieces of information that the community would have to know.” For example, he said, that would include if hardships claimed by developers have been self-imposed and whether something they declare is unique about the site is found in other nearby locations.
If passed, Int. 418-2014 would hold the BSA more accountable to communities when it makes decisions they disagree with. Sponsored by Koslowitz, this bill proposes that the BSA be required to submit a written explanation of any decisions that are made contrary to the local community board. The board already issues decisions, according to Kallos, though they are very brief. “They’re not writing judicial-style decisions that provide findings of fact or issues of law,” Kallos said. More detailed decisions would be easier for communities to appeal.
Directly addressing community concerns
Int. 282-2014, sponsored by Van Bramer, would force the BSA to “establish rules for the consideration of arguments and evidence submitted by parties, and to refer to such arguments and evidence in final determinations.” Simply put, anything submitted by elected officials and community boards with regard to a specific application would have to be addressed in the BSA’s written decisions. At the hearing, Singer said he was concerned that “because of the volume of comments received, we believe the result would be a resolution that is unwieldy and less straightforward and would require significant resources to exhaustively address.”
Mapping variances online
Another bill by Kallos, Int. 1394-2016 proposes that the BSA create an interactive online map of all variants and special permits approved by the agency since Jan. 1, 1996. Allowing users to filter by multiple categories like borough, date and permit status, Kallos hopes the law will open up information to residents and communities affected by BSA decisions. The upper East 60s and lower East 70s in Kallos’s district particularly inspired this, as they have slowly been rezoned out of residential use almost exclusively for hospital use. “That would be reflected on the map, so people could actually say, ‘Wait, look, this entire area used to be one thing but BSA variances turned it into something else,” he said. Singer, however, told the committee at the hearing that such a map would be “expensive and challenging to maintain. Therefore, we do not support this bill but would be happy to sit down and discuss how we can best address these issues with the Council.”