Dept. of Buildings limits public comment period for projects
by Daniel Bush
Jul 14, 2009 | 3955 views | 0 0 comments | 110 110 recommendations | email to a friend | print
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A Queens Civic Congress member expresses his displeasure with a new DOB policy.
The Department of Buildings has instituted a new rule limiting building complaint times despite strenuous opposition by elected officials who claim the change unfairly favors speedy development.

The rule, which took effect July 13, establishes a 45-day public comment period wherein residents can lodge complaints on particular building projects to the city. The comment period begins once a building site is approved and a permit is put up. If a complaint against a project is validated, DOB issues a stop work order.

Before, DOB placed no time limit on public comments.

The new rule also requires DOB to post its rebuttals to individual building challenges online, a first.

In announcing the change, DOB argued it would streamline an oftentimes lengthy, unpredictable process and make the lodging of complaints more efficient and timely.

"The 45-day public challenge process establishes an organized procedure to challenge the department's zoning decisions," a DOB statement said. "The online diagrams and new challenge process will streamline the review of the thousands of challenges the department receives each year - at no additional cost to the city."

Opponents of the plan gathered the Friday before it took effect to express fears the change would pave the way for developers to do as they please with only limited public input.

The rally, organized by the Queens Civic Congress and held before the DOB's Manhattan offices, attracted a variety of elected officials and community leaders who said they would consider suing the city to block the rule change.

"It's unconstitutional to restrict people's access to complain to their government," said Queens Councilman Tony Avella, who is running for mayor. "In effect, it's giving developers free reign."

Avella, who called the DOB "the most corrupt agency" in the city, accused the Buildings Department of proceeding with the plan despite massive protests against it. A DOB public hearing on the issue earlier this year attracted a major crowd, a majority of whom voiced opposition to the plan.

Avella said the city did not take their objections into full account in planning out the new rule, though DOB, which had originally proposed a reduced 30-day comment period, did increase it by one-third.

Queen councilman and comptroller candidate John Liu questioned the DOB's authority to limit public comments, saying it would undermine responsible development.

"This kind of rule-making is totally unacceptable to residents and activists alike," Liu said at the rally.

Others argued developers would find convenient ways to use the 45-day public comment period to their advantage.

Norman Siegel, who is running for public advocate, suggested developers would put up work permits to initiate the 45-day comment period in June or July, when many community boards recess for the summer.

That way, Siegel said, the comment period would pass for potentially controversial projects before community boards could review them.

Paul Graziano, of the Historic Districts Council, said restricting public input would result in more out-of-context developments, and less contextual projects, in historic neighborhoods across the city.

"It's going to hurt people who want to do correct development and hurt people who want to fight bad development," Graziano said. "It's the worst of all worlds."

Avella said his office, in coordination with organizations opposed to the rule, like the Queens Civic Congress, are exploring the possibility of filing a lawsuit against the city.

"This rule has to be overturned," Avella said. "Whether we do something by legal action or in the council, we're not going to give up."
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