Board 7 rejects variance request for church
by Shane Miller
Jan 12, 2012 | 1697 views | 0 0 comments | 12 12 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Community Board 7 turned down a trio of variances that would allow a Flushing congregation to construct a church on 33rd Avenue in a residential neighborhood.

The board voted unanimously to oppose the proposal by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) at the board's monthly meeting Monday night.

LDS Church purchased three lots on 33rd Avenue in the fall of 2008, and merged them into one tax lot with the address of 145-15 33rd Avenue. The variances seek permission to exceed the allowable floor-area ratio (FAR) of .5 in the R2A zone and build a church with an FAR of .95, as well as allow side and rear yard obstructions.

The rear and side yard obstructions are the result of a raised deck that the church will sit on to accommodate an underground parking garage with 55 spaces.

A third variance request would allow a driveway entering the garage to have a slope of 13.5% where 11% is permitted.

As proposed, the church would be 23,097 square feet with a occupancy of up to 514 people, and feature a steeple that reaches a height of nearly 95 feet.

Bishop John Wu of LDS Church said the large size of the church was necessary to meet the worship needs of the congregation. As proposed, the church consists of one large meeting room in the center that rises two stories, but is ringed by several small meeting rooms on the second level.

As the Bishop explained, the LDS Church meets for three hours every Sunday, the first hour as a large group, the next two hours in small Bible study groups based on age and gender.

It is the small meeting rooms on the second floor, explained Wu, that are the reason for the extra FAR and the variance.

"We cannot reduce the size of the chapel or change the size in order to meet our programmatic needs," Wu told board members. "We need this to be able to worship as our faith requires."

The LDS Church already has a building for worship on Sanford Avenue just east of Parsons Boulevard on a large lot zoned R-7, which would allow the church to construct a new church, as-of-right, much larger than the one it has proposed for 33rd Avenue.

Some board members questioned why the church didn't just build a new church on that lot, as opposed to seeking variances to build a new one in a different part of Flushing.

Wu said that the idea had been explored, but ultimately rejected by LDS Church in 2005, at which point they started a search for a new site in the area. When representatives from LDS Church met with the CB7 Land Use Committee on December 14, they indicated that if a new church was built, it would look to sell the Sanford Avenue property.

At the December meeting, the committee criticized the church's architects for failing to bring renderings that would show how the church would fit in with the existing buildings on 33rd Avenue.

The committee ultimately rejected the variances in their recommendation to the board, stating that the church's programmatic needs were a self-imposed hardship, and did not meet the requirements for a variance.

At the full board meeting, architect Fernando Fernandez produced a rendering that showed a long view of the block, with the church far in the background, making it appear smaller. The steeple was also partially obscured by a tree.

Land Use Committee chairman Tyler Cassell called the rendering "very deceptive."

Fernandez insisted that other than the steeple, the church was really just a two-story building that rose to only 37 feet, and met necessary height setbacks given the extra bulk that is granted to community facilities under current zoning regulations.

"But it also has a steeple that is about 10 stories tall," replied board vice-chairman Chuck Apelian, who added that if they're weren't issues with the proposal, the LDS Church wouldn't be before the board seeking a variance.

Wu also assured the board that the LDS Church had strict geographic requirements about where members can worship, and that parishioners would only come from the surrounding neighborhoods.

"We have no intention of becoming a 'megachurch,'" he said.

When board members questioned the impact the church would have on traffic and parking, Wu said the church would only be used on Sundays, and that the close proximity of its members and the underground parking meant that no cars would be parked on the street, an assertion board chairman Gene Kelty strongly objected.

"You can't guarantee that," he immediately shot back. "It's a nice thing to say, but you can't guarantee that."

The area of Flushing just north of Northern Boulevard has become home to many large churches over the past several years. At the meeting, there were several speakers both for and against the church, but many neighbors questioned the impact another religious institution would have on the neighborhood.

Paul Graziano, an independent urban planner, has lived in this part of Flushing his entire life. He said that since 1993, there has been an influx of community facilities, most of them religious in nature, in an approximately six-block area he referred to as “God's Alley.”

“There have been such changes and destruction,” said Graziano. “Not to mention the thousands of people these facilities attract from all over the tristate area that come to the neighborhood on Sundays causing chaos.”

The board's vote on Monday night was only advisory. The Board of Standards and Appeals will ultimately make a final decision on the church's request.

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