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Housing zoning focus of discrimination trial

The village of Garden City's decision to change a multifamily zone on Nassau County-owned land was motivated by community concerns about traffic and school overcrowding -- not by race or class -- village attorneys and officials said yesterday during a housing discrimination trial.

The trial concerns a 2005 lawsuit filed by the Long Island chapter of now-defunct ACORN, which charged Fair Housing Act and Civil Rights Act violations by the village in response to former Nassau County Executive Thomas Suozzi's plan to sell an old 25-acre Social Services building to a developer for about $30 million.

Nonprofit groups New York Communities for Change and MHANY Management Inc. took over the suit and alleged Garden City rezoned the land to block any chance of affordable housing, which likely would have housed minorities. Frank Fish, a village consultant who drew up the zone change, testified it was about "a respect for existing neighborhoods" whose residents believed multifamily housing would bring burdensome traffic.

"Traffic is a major concern," Fish said on the witness stand.

Attorneys for New York Communities for Change said Garden City buckled to pressure from residents and property-owner groups who feared an influx of minorities.

Stanley Brown, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said the charge by residents that multifamily apartments would burden the school district is flawed because single-family homes are a bigger generator of schoolchildren.

"They're not helping themselves if their goal is to eliminate schoolchildren as opposed to blocking affordable housing -- which we think it is," he said during a break in the trial.

The original zoning proposal called for 311 units. Garden City officials, after complaints from residents at public hearings, changed the zoning to allow up to 90 single-family homes, up to 150 town houses, or a combination of the two -- all three options also including up to 36 multifamily units.

The property was never sold and remains closed.

Village administrator Robert Schoelle declined to speculate in testimony why the village rezoned the property.

Outside the trial, Elmont resident Mimi Pierre Johnson -- one of about 10 New York Communities for Change members who attended the trial -- said the zone change was tantamount to housing discrimination. The case could change the face of development on Long Island and allow for more mixed-income developments, which often are blocked by discrimination, she said.

But James G. Ryan, an attorney for the village, said the plaintiffs are suggesting "democracy stops" when multifamily developments are proposed.

"And neither the trustees nor the citizens of Garden City could question, comment, modify, make other suggestions or criticize," Ryan said during a break. "That's not how democracy works."

The trial resumes today in U.S. District Court in Central Islip.

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