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2 Potters Lane Trees: No Walk in the Park

The array of choices before the Village of Great Neck’s zoning board on the matter of ruling on a parking lot where a wooded lot once stood has mushroomed adding to the complexity of the case. And once more, the impartiality of the zoning board has been questioned.

Concluding another lengthy session of an open public hearing, the board members concurred that rather than requiring a full environmental impact study to be done on the 2 Potters Lane case, they would hire an independent traffic expert from Frederick P. Clark Associates to study the safety issues from a pedestrian and vehicular standpoint before making a final determination. The applicant agreed to reimburse the village for the cost of the study.

New Alternate Plan Presented

The applicant, the United Mashadi Jewish Community at 31 Steamboat Road directed their architect Thomas Fitzsimmons to create an alternate plan that would reduce the number of parking spaces from 61 to 39. This latest plan provides for angled parking on the east side of the lot thereby shielding neighboring houses on Potters Court from the glare of car lights and leaving Partage Lane, a right of way that has been used by the Park District to service the Tennis building, clear and useable.

On all other counts, it would be similar to the first plan presented in that it would have a graveled surface, would have a gated 6-foot stockade fence, would have 13 lights on 12 foot poles and would have a curb cut 80 feet from Steamboat Road. There would be 97 trees and 31 shrubs planted on the site. In addition, there would be an access gate at the rear of the lot for the park district’s use.

Board member Victor Habib located a sketch of yet another plan in his folder, which he said should be developed. It provides for 33 parking spaces and 2 handicapped spots and does not require that any more trees be cut down. In the plan for 61 parking spaces, 9 of the remaining trees on the lot would need to be removed. Member Norman Namdar commented that if there are too many choices, the board will never be able to reach a decision. But by the end of the meeting, it was decided to ask Mr. Fitzsimmons to review the “mystery” plan to determine its feasibility since it was only a sketch and not to scale.

The other factor to be decided is whether or not to keep the rental house on the property. On the one hand, its existence is in keeping with the residential neighborhood and its removal would displace a family and reduce affordable housing by one. On the other hand, if it were not there, the visibility of oncoming traffic from Steamboat might be better.

Peter Mineo, attorney for the applicant said that some of the elements in the various plans “can be mixed and matched.” He stated that the applicant prefers the plan with 61 parking spaces.

Need Vs. Convenience

The discussion on the board veered back to whether a parking lot with 61 or 39 spots would really be worth much weighed against the undesirability of a rather secluded parking lot.

Victor Nabib questioned whether the board should consider the “devaluation of the neighboring homes” and whether there was a true need for such a parking lot.

References were made to statements made at prior zoning board meetings regarding the spillover parking into the neighborhood. Neighbors have testified that the on-street parking is acceptable for most of the year with the exception of High Holy Days. Congregants have stated to the Record that this testimony has puzzled them since they have dealt with many complaints regarding parking on side streets. Village trustee Edna Guilor Sigal stated during public time that there had been many complaints to the Board of Trustees and summonses issued until the village changed the rules prohibiting parking on both sides of the street. There had been many concerns about whether emergency vehicles could maneuver through the congested streets. She said, “Since that ruling went into effect, we have had fewer complaints.”

Board member Steven Markowitz again asked about whether the congregants could use the underused municipal parking lot a few blocks away. The response was that it is too far away to be practical.

Village attorney Steve Limmer and the applicant’s attorney Peter Mineo were in agreement that a parking lot for a religious institution is covered by protective laws and that “need” is not relevant. Mr. Limmer added that New York State law is clear in ruling that municipalities must “accommodate” religious institutions and that the “scale is tipped in their favor.” Further, he said, “I do not think that you (the board) can take into account the depreciation of property values.” However, Mr. Limmer also said, “I don’t think that denial of the application would be a significant burden.”

Impartiality of Zoning Board

When asked by the Record whether he had any personal interest in the application, the newest board member Tedi Kashi confirmed that he is a member of the United Mashadi Jewish Community and stated that he had made that disclosure at a prior zoning board meeting. He said that counsel to the board, Steve Limmer, had advised that under state law, Mr. Kashi was not required to recuse himself from these proceedings. Further, Mr. Kashi stated that he believes he could be fair in making a determination about the case.

Board member Steve Markowitz said, “During these last months, I’ve gotten to know Mr. Kashi and have the greatest respect for him. I know there is no legal requirement that he recuse himself from voting on this case, but it is important that a zoning board operate at the highest level of ethics.” He added that members of the board of trustees in the village “routinely recuse themselves” whenever a case comes before them from a religious institution where they have an affliation. “Why should we not hold ourselves to the same standard?”

Board chairperson Dennis Grossman, whose home is near the neighborhood in question, countered, “I have learned to leave my feelings in the parking lot … I look at the facts and figures and make a ruling not based on anger.”

Elizabeth Allen, directing her comments to Mr. Kashi, said, “Mr. Limmer is your law officer, not your moral officer. I don’t challenge your honesty. I challenge the way it looks to the public…It looks bad.”

Village trustee Jeffrey Bass stated that while there was no legal obligation for recusal in the matter, there is an obligation to preserve “ the transparency and integrity” of a high office in the village. He concluded, “You can voluntarily step back from this case.”

(The former zoning board member, Nick Nabarian, a member of the applicant’s congregation, also declined to voluntarily recuse himself.)

Other Public Comments

Elizabeth Allen, whose home is near the Mashadi temple at 54 Steamboat Road, emphasized the negative side of living near a parking lot. Although it has been stated by the applicant that the proposed parking lot would be locked when not in use, she said that the parking lot near her is “never locked” despite her letters of complaint and that it is often filled with people “hanging out” there making noise. She said that a parking lot is “not a neutral addition to the community.”

She also noted that she has observed that spaces in the far side of the parking lot “go begging” as congregants will park on the street in spots closer to the synagogue instead.

Jean Pierce suggested that the 2 Potters Lane parcel be made into a playground for the children and that the playground onsite be converted to more parking spaces.

Joan Wheeler noted that rental houses on Florence Lane would be affected by the lights from the parking lot. She also commented that it would be likely that cars would discharge passengers after making the turn onto Potters Lane and that there would be a stack up of cars that could be dangerous.

Norman Wheeler asked, “If you deny the application, will you order that trees be restored to the lot?” Chairperson Grossman said, “We would restore as much as possible.” Under the court case regarding the 51 trees removed without a permit, an agreement in June 2009 was reached in which the applicant will plant 41 deciduous trees and 82 evergreens on the site and/or on village properties.