Written by Carol Frank Friday, 14 August 2009 00:00
The focus on the issue of the proposed parking lot in a residential zone on 2 Potters Lane shifted from the illegal clear-cutting of 51 trees to a basic issue of whether or not the parking lot is really essential, especially given the concerns about the safety and well-being of the synagogue members and the surrounding community. The Village of Great Neck’s Board of Zoning Appeals did not make a ruling on the case Thursday night and will continue the hearing on Thursday, Sept. 10 after Labor Day.
Chairperson Dennis Grossman said, “We will either approve a parking lot or we will rule to restore the wooded lot; those are our choices.”
The applicant, the United Mashadi Jewish Community of North America, is asking for a variance for a temporary gated parking lot of 60 spaces with a permeable surface of gravel to be surrounded by a 6-foot high stockade fence. Architect Tom Fitzsimmons stated that an additional 7 trees would need to come down to make room for the proposed car spaces and a 6-foot retaining wall to be constructed at the rear of the property abutting the Park District tennis facility.
Board members spent considerable time questioning the sight lines for cars existing the proposed lot and, given the narrowness of Potters Lane, the difficulties of exiting and avoiding swinging wide into the lane for oncoming traffic.
A neighbor, Robert Meyer, who lives nearby on Cathy Lane stated that the “reality of the situation is that people park for two hours on my street on Saturdays…it is not an inconvenience for me and it does not justify the destruction of a community.” He also pointed out that there is an underutilized municipal parking lot some “300 feet away” that could be used for any overflow especially during major holidays.
Earlier in the evening, temple co-president Michael Nassimi had, in answering a question about whether temple membership had exceeded expectations in growth, mentioned that some temple families do not come to services together and that while the temple leadership has urged families to “carpool,” they could not force them to do so.
Mr. Meyers said that he thinks a compromise could be reached by giving the temple permission to put in a 25-space parking lot and requiring them to restore the remainder back to a wooded, naturalistic space.
Parking is not allowed at all on Potters Lane because it is so narrow and because in case of a real fire alarm, the Alert supplemental fire trucks, stored on Steamboat Road, need to use Potters to access Bayview. Alert member Kenny Pretto stated that making the turn onto Potters with a 47-foot-long pumper truck is “tough,” but doable.
Another area of questioning had to do with the replanting of trees required by the village court. In the ruling handed down on June 24, the temple is to replant 3 trees for every one taken down illegally, a total of 123. Of those, 41 trees would be deciduous (leafless in the winter) and 82 would be evergreens. If all of the trees could not be replanted on the site of 2 Potters Lane, they would be planted on village property. In addition, the settlement stated that the temple would pay a fine of $40,000.
Mr. Fitzsimmons said that the proposed lot is designed to allow for the planting of 6 red maples, 3 ginkgo, 2 kousa dogwoods ranging from 12 feet to 15 feet high and 82 emerald green arborvitaes from 7 to 8 foot high. A number of shrubs, 14 privet hedges and 28 azaleas are slated as well.
Questions were raised about planting only one species of evergreen since any pest or site problem would increase the chance of die-off of all the plants. Horticulturists refer to one species planting as “monoculture.” Aborvitaes are favored in this site by Mr. Fitzsimmons because, as he told us, “They have a narrow girth and don’t take up much room.” A row of these plants is intended to provide screening for the neighbors so that lights from cars will not disturb them. He indicated that a study has been done for the site to avoid light pollution.
Jean Pierce raised a question about whether or not the fine was paid. It turns out that an arrangement was made so that the temple could pay $10,000 a month for 4 months. The first payment has been made. She also asked why a “temporary” parking lot has been proposed and wants to know if there are plans on the drawing board that have not been made public.
Some board members questioned whether the rental house on the northeast corner of the lot blocks the sight lines onto the street and asked if it could be removed. It is the position of the project planners that the house softens the view and keeps the residential feel of the area, but there was an indication that if need be, it could be removed.
Steven Limmer, attorney for the village and the board, stated that there are two laws that provide direction for zoning boards in matters like this one. Under state law, certain rights are given to houses of worship and schools because “they are deemed to be in the public interest.” In addition, the federal law, the Religious Land Use & Institutionalized Person Act, referred to as RLUIPA, also governs zoning boards. Mr. Limmer’s interpretation of the law is that “a governmental body can not put a significant burden on a religious institution unless there is a compelling government interest…in my opinion, I don’t think this would be a significant burden because the applicant has operated without this parking lot up till now.” He went on to note, however, that state law has decreed that parking lots do fall under the protective category when schools and religious institutions are involved.
Barbara Zeller, representing the Equitable Land Tax Alliance, said, “In listening to tonight’s discussion, two things occur to me. There is nothing wrong with walking to worship and I question whether a parking lot constitutes religious freedom…We are a coalition of groups from all over the country and we intend to carry the fight all the way to the Supreme Court.”