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Great Neck mayor tables plan to shift zoning to trustees

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?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8" standalone="yes"?> Credit: Great Neck Mayor Pedram Bral listens during a public hearing, Tuesday evening, Dec. 1, 2015, regarding changing the way special use permits, including for houses of worship, are handled.

The mayor of Great Neck postponed a plan to empower the board of trustees to approve all village special use permits — many of which are currently handled by the zoning board — after much heated discussion about the way applications for houses of worship are treated.

Residents and members of the zoning board opposed the plan at a two-hour hearing Tuesday night. Some questioned whether the proposal was legal and called it a power grab by the trustees, while religious leaders spoke out in support of the bill to say the process for house of worship approvals through the zoning board — for example, requests for a sukkah and mikvah — was often slow and expensive.

After the board met in executive session with the village attorney, Mayor Pedram Bral said board members needed more time to review the proposal.

Though the bill covers all special- and conditional-use requests in the village, Bral has said that a key reason for the bill was to ease the process for developers of houses of worship. He cited suggestions from residents, and some in attendance said plans for religious institutions had taken too long.

But chairman Dennis Grossman of the Board of Zoning Appeals said he was concerned the proposal would have “serious impacts for further development in the village.”

Grossman, who has served on the board for 16 years, said the board should have time to study the proposal and be authorized to hire “independent counsel” because the board’s law firm is “conflicted out.”

The trustees board is represented by the same firm as the zoning board, Bee Ready Fishbein Hatter & Donovan LLP of Mineola.

Grossman said he wanted to work with the village to solve some of the issues, suggesting that trustees authorize the zoning board to meet more frequently.

“I think things should be expedited,” Grossman said. He said, however, zoning board members “pay attention to the details” and make sure that safe procedures are followed.

Support for the bill came from some in the religious community. Gabi Aharoni, president of Shaare Zion of Great Neck, said the trustees board would offer “much more quick resolutions.”

Resident David Ahdout said he believed the zoning board was “purposefully delaying approvals so the applicant would abandon the cause.”

Bral said at the beginning of the meeting residents could only speak for three minutes. The hearing became tense as the mayor’s campaign manager, Rebecca Rosenblatt Gilliar, asked for additional time to read specific passages that she had asked board members to underline in red pen.

She said the law had “bad thinking” and “might be illegal.”

“You just want to usurp jurisdiction, and it’s not clear why.”

The board asked her to borrow time from other scheduled speakers.

Some residents called others liars, while the mayor pleaded for civility.

Bral and two other trustees took office in July, all of whom unseated incumbents to gain control of the board of trustees. Zoning board members are appointed, not elected.

Resident Amy Glass, who has lived in the village for 22 years, said she worried this proposal would open the door to “special favors.”

Village attorney Peter Bee said the proposal abides by New York State law and gives the board of trustees power over all of the special use permit decisions. The board already has authority over some special use permits, Bee said.

Steven Markowitz, a board of zoning appeals member for eight years, asked “what is driving this?” and said residents wanted to know “what is this really about.”

Zoning board member Ronald Poons said the trustees lacked the “courtesy” to run the issue by the zoning board.

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