Council considers law to allow review of BSA decisions

Proposal would permit Council by a majority vote to review variances and special permits. The City Council’s Land Use Committee heard public testimony on July 24, 2007 on Local Law Intro. 261 to amend the City Charter’s review procedures on BSA decisions. The amendment, sponsored by Council Member Tony Avella, would give the Council the power to review BSA variances and special permit decisions if a majority of the full Council votes to take review. As currently proposed, the amendment would not authorize the Council to review all BSA decisions; it would be limited to variances and special permits.

BSA is comprised of five May oral-appointed commissioners pursuant to the 1991 City Charter. Among other powers, BSA has the authority to modify or waive zoning regulations through variances and to grant special permits for uses that would otherwise violate zoning regulations. The zoning resolution dictates that BSA must ensure an applicant for a variance meets five findings supporting a conclusion that compliance with the zoning regulation is not possible. Since the 1989 Charter’s elimination of the Board of Estimate, the governmental body that previously could review BSA decisions, the only path available to challenge BSA’s decisions has been to go to court using an article 78 petition. The proposed amendment to the Charter would allow the Council to assess the sufficiency of the evidence used to support the five findings, and to modify or change the decision.

Setting the tone for the hearing, Avella characterized BSA as, “an entity onto itself,” that had “little opinion of those whose lives are affected by its decisions.” Avella criticized the article 78 petition path for challenging BSA decisions as being prohibitively expensive to afford a reasonable review, and stated that, “no government entity should wield such power.” Avella then listed an extensive number of community boards and civic associations that have already signed on in support of the amendment, and closed by saying that, “BSA has been too long out of control, and this amendment to the Charter would establish a much-needed check.”

When opened to testimony, six members of the public spoke strongly in favor of the proposed amendment and no speakers opposed. Andrew Berman, the Executive Director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, believed that BSA grants variances and special permits without meeting the five findings required by law. Berman praised the proposed amendment as providing a reasonable review process “without opening the door to purely subjective determinations or those based entirely upon political pressure.” Walter Mugdan, President of the Westmoreland Association, a not-for-profit homeowners’ association, said the amendment would significantly assist homeowners in ensuring that BSA more faithfully observes zoning rules and would “allow the Council, a body of elected representatives, to review decisions of BSA, a body of officials appointed by the mayor, not directly responsible to the electorate.” Mugdan further criticized the article 78 review of BSA decisions as overly burdensome and providing no substantive review of the decisions.

The Land Use Committee closed the hearing without a vote. If approved by the Council, the amendment would be placed on the ballot for the next general elecelection, which is scheduled for November 6, 2007.

Council: Public Hearing Int. 261/2006 (July 24, 2007).

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