2006-06-30 / Editorial/Opinion

Downzoning The West End: The Battle Begins

Developers built this out-of-scale home at Beach 3 Street and Seagirt Avenue in Mott Creek before local homeowners worked for and got a downzoning approval from the city. Developers built this out-of-scale home at Beach 3 Street and Seagirt Avenue in Mott Creek before local homeowners worked for and got a downzoning approval from the city. Some residents in the west end of Rockaway certainly find some strange things to fight over. First, it was the "official" (man-made) dunes that some are protesting and demanding that they be dozed under.

One would think that those people would agree with the vast majority of the people in America who revere dunes and want to see more of them as well as with federal law that protects dunes because they protect the shoreline and the expensive properties on the other side of the beach.

One man, who obviously thinks of the dunes as somehow evil and the work of elitists even took me to task for being unfair and with "acting as unfair as Dan Rather." I'll take it. Being compared with somebody like Dan Rather is not a negative in my book.

Now comes the next big fight - downzoning the west end.

You would think that anybody who owned a home in Rockaway Park and Belle Harbor would be avid fans of downzoning.

As it turns out, they are not.

And, they are using the same sort of scare tactics the anti-dune people used to try and convince the powers-that-be to doze the dunes.

The dunes people said that the dunes breed disease, draw unwanted dogs and teenagers who will then do who-knows-what behind them. They said that the dunes are dangerous because people will not be able to watch their kids on the beach and it may even close the beach because it may well draw the dreaded piping plover.

I understand from a recent letter that one young man was hurt jumping from the dunes when he hit a pole that makes up the protective fence. I feel badly for the boy, but have to ask what he was doing jumping from the dunes in the first place. By the way, The Wave did not report that incident because we did not know about it, not because we were covering up the danger of the dunes.

The people who are opposed to downzoning the west end communities similarly argue that the downzoning will "adversely affect the community" by bringing down property values and by not allowing people whose homes are destroyed in a fire or storm to rebuild to the same scale as it was before it was destroyed.

One letter-writer last week, playing to the crowd, wrote to The Wave, "Our parents are living longer and we are trying to make room for them too. We may want to dormer to make more space, enclose a porch or extend a few feet to accommodate these needs and may not be able to do that under [downzoning]."

The writer goes on to say how much she likes the larger homes, the ones some call "McMansions."

"That word is too loosely applied to large homes," the writer said. "Most of these new homes are beautiful and only increase our property values."

I have a suggestion for that writer and anybody else who is opposed to downzoning the community. Take a ride east on Beach Channel Drive. At Beach 35 Street, make a right turn and cross under the subway line to Seagirt Boulevard. Take Seagirt Boulevard to Beach 9 Street and make a right towards the beachfront. Go one block and make a left on Seagirt Avenue. Look at the homes that have been there for decades. Then, drive two blocks up to Beach 3 Street and take a look at the homes that the developers managed to build there until the residents complained to local politicians and the area was downzoned. Even after the decision was made to downzone the area, however, one of the developers continued to fight on to get his out-of-scale homes built on Beach 4 Street. The Board of Standards and Appeals will soon hear his plea, but it is expected that it will fall on deaf ears since the question has already gone through the lengthy downzoning process.

You never know, however, what will happen in this city when money and politics is involved.

One look at those homes, and you will quickly change your mind about downzoning the west end. (See photo on this page).

The new homes are nice and might even be well-built. They are, however, way out of scale with the rest of the homes in the area and that is what downzoning is all about.

The writer ends with a quote that seems to be out of place for somebody who is concerned about the future of his or her community.

"Some people are resistant to change and when the Victorian house that you loved next door is knocked down and a brick Tudor or contemporary replaces it, the people are disgruntled, but the person who purchased that piece of property is entitled to have the style they like. That's why we live in America."

I would like to ask the writer of that letter what would happen should that buyer next door rip down the old house and build a three story home meant for two families with limited parking in the backyard and no garage next to her home? Would she still feel the same way? I doubt it. That, however, is what is happening. Go to Beach 6 Street and then come back and we'll see if you still want to fight downzoning.

It is hard for me to understand why a homeowner would oppose downzoning. To my mind the only upside for those fighting the plan is that those who want to sell their homes to developers of "McMansions" will lose some value in their properties.

Those who want to maintain the community as a small-scale residential community, however, should welcome the plan.

Will property values go down slightly because developers will not be able to build those McMansions? Probably. That will not matter to those who want to maintain the community, however. It will only matter to those who don't care. Which brings me to D. Brian Heffernan, a local realtor who I believe has a real financial interest in seeing the downzoning plan fail.

Heffernan has paid for full-page ads for two weeks running in The Wave to speak out against the plan.

"Certainly, for most homes and especially older ones, of which most are in our neighborhood, the primary value of the homes are not based on the value of the structures, but rather on the underlying properties upon which the homes are built," he writes in his ad. "For most people, their largest asset is their home and any proposed downzoning could directly threaten this asset. For those intending to one day sell their homes, the implications are clear - lower property values. For those who do not plan to sell their homes, a downzoning would still affect their ability to tap into their home's equity, and would also lower the value of their future estate."

Heffernan owns some properties in the west end. He features himself as a developer as well as a broker. He brokers deals for local residents with people who want to buy or with developers who want to build and make the largest profit possible.

None of those things is either illegal or immoral, but they often do not do much for the community build as dense as possible in a neighborhood with smaller one or two family homes.

I went back to the areas in Bayswater and Beach 3 Street that were recently downzoned.

While it is still too early to tell, several of the homeowners there (who were deliriously happy that the downzoning passed) told me that their homes went up in value because prospective buyers did not want to live next door to a McMansion."

The battle is joined. It is just beginning. Before it is over, the Civil War might look like a tea party. It is too early to tell.

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