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Under a new administration, Great Neck rethinks who will review special use permits

Pedram Bral stands outside Great Neck Village Hall

Pedram Bral stands outside Great Neck Village Hall on Tuesday, June 18, 2015. Bral official took over the office of mayor of Great Neck on July 6, after winning the June 16 election. Credit: Uli Seit

Great Neck officials say they want to take away the power to approve special- and conditional-use permits from the village's zoning board of appeals -- including for houses of worship -- and give them to the board of trustees.

While the proposed change, which will be discussed at Tuesday's village trustees meeting, covers all requests seeking to build in some residential sections of the village, Great Neck's new mayor said a main focus of the proposal is to change the way requests from houses of worship are reviewed.

"I heard complaints about a lot of things; house of worship was something that was there," said Mayor Pedram Bral, who was elected in June. "Stores, restaurants, and synagogues or houses of worship are places that serve the people, in a very close manner."

The bill, if approved by the board of trustees, would change the forum in which those cases are handled from the appointed zoning board of appeals to the elected trustees, Village Attorney Peter Bee said.

In the interview, Bral said he had heard concerns from community residents who said the zoning board process was lengthy and expensive. In describing the proposed bill, Bral said its "intent" is to change the place for which house of worship special-use and conditional permits are reviewed.

The board of trustees is "elected and they represent people closely," Bral said. "Things that affect people and influence people in such a manner -- it's probably best to decide it by an elected official."

However, Bee said there is no change in the application fee.

The proposal comes nearly six months after Bral and two new trustees were elected to the board in an upset, defeating incumbents by a 3-1 margin.

The application process is not being changed, and the same standards are to be used in considering the permit requests -- it's giving the board of trustees the final say that is changing, village officials said.

Steven Markowitz, a zoning board of appeals member for eight years, said "this came totally unexpected; we're not quite sure what it actually means."

Barton Sobel, a village trustee who is a member of the defeated mayor's party, said he believed the proposal was motivated by concerns from religious organizations.

"I don't know if this helps or fixes anything; basic tenets of zoning have to be followed," he said.

Mitchell Beckerman, the former village deputy mayor who was defeated in the June 16 election, criticized the proposal. The trustees have "enough on their plate so they shouldn't be taking over other boards' activities," he said.

Other village trustee boards on Long Island handle special use permits for houses of worship, including Kings Point and Old Westbury. Beckerman said zoning board members are focused on the particulars of a proposal -- such as ramifications for parking and traffic -- in a way a trustees board would not be.

Marci Hamilton, a law professor at Yeshiva University's Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law who specializes in religious liberty and religious land use issues, said "these issues are supposed to be decided by neutral principles of land use law."

Hamilton added, "while developers and others get frustrated with the process, the process takes time so there is adequate input from neighbors, so the decision-makers can make informed decisions."

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