Council Subcommittees Hear Four Proposed Bills on Increasing Transparency in Land Use

Top Image: Council Member Fernando Cabrera/Image Credit: Jeff Reed
Bottom Image: Council Member Ben Kallos/Image Credit: John McCarten

The four proposed bills would provide the community and elected officials with the tools to make informed decisions about developments in their neighborhoods. On September 26, 2019, the City Council’s Land Use and Governmental Operations Committees held a hearing on four proposed bills that will increase transparency regarding new developments in the City, specifically with the transfer of development rights and testimony at the Board of Standards and Appeals. The four bills are a response to the recent development of supertall out-of-context skyscrapers in the City and the lack of information provided to the community during the development process.

The Proposed Bills

Introduction 1691-2019, sponsored by Governmental Operations Chair and Council Member Fernando Cabrera, will require the Department of City Planning to assign a unique identifying number to each zoning lot in the City. City Planning would also be required to amend each zoning lot number to reflect any changes to the lot, such as the subdivision of a lot or a zoning lot merger.

Introduction 1692-2019, also sponsored by Council Member Cabrera, will require City Planning to create a publically available interactive online map which displays each zoning lot in the City and to update this map on a quarterly basis to reflect any changes to the lot. The bill would also give City Planning the authority to gather additional information necessary from the Department of Buildings, the Board of Standards and Appeals, the City Register, and any other government or private organization to complete the online map.

Introduction 1701-2019, sponsored by Council Member Ben Kallos, will require the City Register to notify an affected community board, Council Member, Borough President, and the Council Speaker when the City Register records a deed reflecting a transfer of development rights. The City Register would also be required to notify the affected parties when an applicant records a zoning lot description for a Buildings permit for development or enlargement of a building. The City Register must notify the parties within five days of the document’s recording.

Introduction 1723-2019, also sponsored by Council Member Kallos, will require all testimony by property owners to be given under oath. This expands Local Law 103 of 2017 which only requires property owners to be sworn in when they have a variance or special permit application.

Legislative Intent

Introductions 1691, 1692, and 1701 were proposed because of the lack of publically accessible information and transparency on zoning lot mergers.

Developers purchase unused development rights from an adjacent zoning lot when they want to construct a building that is taller than what is allowed by the zoning lot’s floor area ratio. One way unused development rights can be transferred from one lot to another is through a zoning lot merger. Zoning lot mergers are done through private agreement between lot owners. Once an agreement happens, owners must record the descriptions of the newly merged zoning lot’s boundaries and a deed reflecting that transfer with the City Register.

Although zoning lot merger documents are recorded, there is no centralized system to track zoning lot mergers. City Planning’s Zoning and Land Use (ZoLa) online map shows the zoning district for a particular tax lot but there is no layer that specifically shows zoning lot boundaries. The only way for someone to track zoning lot mergers and know which rights were transferred would be to keep track and piece together documents recorded with the City Register. According to the Council’s Committee Report, the Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy at New York University had to compile information for its 2003-2011 zoning lot merger database by “painstakingly examining legal documents filed with the City Register, among other sources.”

Because there is no centralized place to find zoning lot information, it makes it difficult for the public, especially impacted community members and elected officials, to know when a developer is purchasing development rights and to predict what a developer could build using those rights. The lack of information has made it difficult for the community to intervene or take action before a new development, such as a supertall, out-of-context building, is approved and constructed.

The three bills propose to provide the community and elected officials with the information needed to respond to out-of-context developments in their neighborhoods.

Introduction 1723 was proposed to ensure property owners are honest about their developments when they are in front of the Board of Standards and Appeals. The proposed bill will expand Local Law 103 of 2017, which requires property owners who are applying for a variance or special permit with the Board of Standards and Appeals to testify under oath at public hearings. The proposed bill proposes to ensure that property owners remain honest anytime they are in front of the Board.

City Council Subcommittee Public Hearing

At the September 26 Governmental Operations and Land Use public hearing, Susan Amron, Department of City Planning’s General Counsel, Margery Perlmutter, Board of Standards and Appeals Chair, and Mona Sehgal, Department of Buildings’ General Counsel testified on a panel and answered questions about the implementation of the proposed bills, specifically on Introductions 1691 and 1692.

Introduction 1691 and 1692

The majority of the Council Members who were present at the hearing shared their support for Introductions 1691 and 1692. Council Member Ben Kallos voiced his support for his colleague’s bill, stating that he had a difficult time mapping out zoning lots and their boundaries. He stated that he had to hire an urban planner to piece together information from property records and maps to determine one zoning lot’s boundaries. Council Member Kallos noted that the process took him and the urban planner “several hours.”

On the other hand, City Planning and Buildings had some concerns with Introductions 1691 and 1692. City Planning and Buildings were concerned on how to identify and map zoning lots. In response to Council Member Cabrera’s questions on the feasibility of assigning each zoning lot a number, Susan Amron stated that it would be impossible to implement the bills because the process of identifying every zoning lot in the City is difficult and would take too much time. She explains that each lot is unique and “requires weeks or months of fact intensive historical research by title, insurance companies, lawyers, and other experts.”

Both Amron and Mona Sehgal state that City Planning and Buildings support tracking and identifying new zoning lot mergers going forward; however, retroactively identifying and tracking existing lots would be difficult. Amron and Sehgal stated that they are willing to work with the Council to figure out what would be the best way to track new mergers going forward.

In regards to Introduction 1692, Council Member Cabrera asked questions about creating a new map layer that shows zoning lot boundaries onto ZoLa. Amron stated that she would have to talk to the people in charge of ZoLa to see how the data would work and that creating another shape file for the zoning lot layer would be costly.

Council Member Yeger agreed with Amron and noted that recording zoning lots retroactively is complicated and stated that it is impossible to do so “without doing years and years of research” but believes that the City should record and track zoning lot mergers going forward.

Introduction 1701

Introduction 1701 received support from City Planning. City Planning General Counsel Susan Amron stated that it was important to increase transparency about zoning lot mergers going forward.

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, who co-sponsored Introduction 1701, testified at the public hearing. She said that by giving communities and elected officials notice about development rights transfers, it would give communities a sense of what could be coming to their neighborhood and give them the opportunity to shape what the potential development would look like. Borough President Brewer testified that the notice would allow for communities and elected officials to better plan for the City.

Introduction 1723

Introduction 1723 received support from BSA. BSA Chair Perlmutter stated that Introduction 1723 would be helpful to ensure veracity at BSA. She responded to Council Member Kalman Yeger’s question about lying that happens at the BSA and says that the Board has caught applicants making some misstatements and that the Board faced issues with veracity.

Members of the public testified in support for Introductions 1691, 1692, and 1701 stating that the legislation would increase transparency and allow communities to make informed decisions on proposed developments in their neighborhood. No members of the public testified on Introduction 1723.

The four bills were laid over in committee.

By: May Vutrapongvatana (May is the CityLaw Fellow and New York Law School Graduate, Class of 2019).


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