Garden City discrimination trial begins

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The Village of Garden City practiced discrimination when it rezoned a Nassau County-owned property with the intent of keeping minorities out of the affluent village, a plaintiffs' attorney said Monday in a long-awaited housing discrimination trial. But lawyers representing the village disputed those claims as both sides made opening arguments in federal court in Central Islip.

A 2005 lawsuit filed by the Long Island chapter of the now-defunct group ACORN alleged violations of the Fair Housing Act and Civil Rights Act. The nonprofit affordable housing advocacy groups New York Communities for Change and MHANY Management Inc. took over the suit when ACORN ceased operations in 2009.

The plaintiffs' attorney argued Garden City created a single-family and town houses zone instead of using the existing multifamily housing zone to prevent affordable housing -- likely to be occupied by minorities -- from being built on the old 25-acre Social Services office site in Garden City.

"Garden City rezoned the possibilities of affordable housing out of existence," attorney Stanley Brown of Manhattan said during opening remarks before U.S. District Court Justice Arthur D. Spatt in Central Islip.

The case dates back to a 2004 plan by former Nassau County Executive Thomas Suozzi to sell the Social Services site to a developer for about $30 million. The original zoning proposal called for 311 units on the site. After public outcry, Garden City officials changed the zoning to allow 90 single-family homes, or 150 town houses with an option for 36 homes. The property never was sold and the building remains shuttered.

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"The people arose out of fear of affordable housing and the kind of people affordable housing would bring," said Brown, adding the "lily white" village was 94.7 percent white in 2000. "There is not one single affordable housing unit in Garden City . . . That affordable housing resistance has perpetuated the segregation in Nassau County."

Housing demography expert Nancy Anne McArdle, of Somerville, Mass., testified the multifamily housing zone could have produced 56 to 101 minority households compared with 3-to-6 under the single-family housing and town houses zone.

The village's attorney, James G. Ryan of Garden City, said residents raised concerns during two 2004 public hearings about protecting the character of the neighborhood, unwanted additional traffic, and more children in district schools.

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"This case arises because the citizens of Garden City exercised their First Amendment rights," said Ryan, adding about 15 percent of the village is composed of multifamily housing. "The plaintiffs contend the board should dismiss citizens' input. That's not how democracy works."

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