Deed Restrictions Bill Would Help Preserve Neighborhoods

Calling it another piece in the puzzle to address overdevelopment, Councilman Tony Avella held a public hearing in City Hall last week that brought out numerous Northeast Queens leaders to push for adoption of a deed restrictions bill.

The bill would amend the Administrative Code to allow homeowners or neighborhood associations whose properties are under restrictive covenants to register the deeds with the Department of Buildings. That agency would then be required to enforce the deed restrictions as well as existing zoning.

Currently, homeowners and civic groups have to sue developers, a costly process, to enforce deed restrictions. Those testifying from Queens at the Housing and Buildings Committee hearing all favored the bill.

Eliot Socci, president of the Douglaston Civic Association, said that the city should protect neighborhoods by enforcing the protective covenants. “The city has them on file already.”

The civic leader pointed to Winchester Estates, a development of 32 homes in his area that is under deed restrictions. “They were blown away by two developers. The residents couldn’t go after both because it would have been too expensive.”

He announced that he has not heard any reasons not to vote for the bill. “The only one against it is the Department of Buildings and their reasons bordered on being silly,” Socci said.

The agency’s testimony revolved around old covenants not allowing blacks or Jews in particular areas. “The bill does not ask the city to back anything unconstitutional,” the civic leader added.

Avella of Whitestone, who sponsored the bill, concurred, noting that the DOB officials didn’t even read the bill. “You can’t violate public policy and this bill doesn’t.”

Nancy Cataldi, president of the Richmond Hill Historical Society, testified how difficult it is now to fight developers. “Our homeowners have watched fruitlessly as homes were torn down because they could not afford the immense legal fees to fight for deed restrictions,” she said. “It is about time taxpayers can speak about how they want to live and not the other way around.”

Paul Graziano, a planning consultant who has worked with Avella on downzoning, backed Cataldi’s contention. “The burden (now) is placed on the homeowners, as the court rarely reimburses the out-of-pocket costs for court and attorney fees. If a neighborhood does not band together, it becomes financially onerous, if not impossible, to fight development that may meet city ordinances but not private restrictions.”

Tina Chan, representing the Kew Forest Neighborhood Association of Forest Hills, asked why it was possible for small towns on Long Island to enforce restrictive covenants, but a big city like New York can’t or won’t.

Sheldon Rosenblum, vice president of the Westmoreland Association, a civic group in Little Neck, believes Avella’s bill “will significantly assist homeowners and homeowners’ associations in ensuring that legally applicable covenants are faithfully observed and that the character of neighborhoods protected by such covenants is maintained as envisioned by the original grantors.”

Bill Sievers, vice president of the Douglaston-Little Neck Historical Society, believes the bill is a much needed tool that will help combat “the predatory redevelopment” in Northeast Queens. “The city has many great places in neighborhoods that were very carefully thought out. The aim always is to protect a sense of place.”

He added that passage of the bill will not undermine the concept of personal property rights, “but would rather protect those rights for homeowners who wish to register their restrictive deed covenants.”

Other Queens groups in favor of the legislation include the Queens Civic Congress, Queens Historical Society and Community Boards 9 and 11.

Avella believes that passage of the bill would be one more avenue the city can pursue to help residents preserve the character of their neighborhoods. “This is another way to address overdevelopment as we’re doing with rezoning.”

The councilman said the next step is to get the bill voted out of committee to go before the entire City Council. But since the DOB is against it, Avella thinks the bill may have to be amended.

He refuses to give up on the legislation and urges residents to write to the mayor in support of the proposal. “Deed restrictions have never been recognized by the city,” he said. “This would be breaking new ground.”

If passed, the DOB would have to put the protective covenants on its web site of properties throughout the city. “It should already be there. It should be public knowledge,” Avella added.

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