2008-09-17 / Editorials


Downzoning Sometimes Unfair To Property Owners

Throughout New York City and especially in Queens, neighborhood after neighborhood is undergoing the process known as "downzoning"—rezoning a tract of land to less-dense uses, usually by reducing the allowable density of the property. Some examples include prohibiting high-rise apartments and allowing only low-rise apartments or single-family homes or prohibiting industrial use and allowing retail uses.

Changing zoning from a higher to a lower or from a more active to less active classification, aka downzoning, is highly regarded in some quarters as one of the most popular tools for tightening the screws on development and curbing suburban sprawl. Many Queens neighborhoods, such as Bayside and Cambria Heights, have undergone downzoning in recent memory for just this entirely understandable reason. Overdevelopment puts intolerable strains on nearly all elements of a neighborhood—housing, schools, sewers, roads, parking, utilities, mass transportation—the list goes on and on. But like just about everything else we can think of, downzoning has the deficiencies of its qualities.

One nearby neighborhood, Dutch Kills, has recently become embroiled in a battle over downzoning that underscores the disadvantages of the practice as well as the advantages. As defined in The Language of Real Estate (Real Estate Education Company, Chicago, Illinois, 2000), when a neighborhood is downzoned, "...In these cases, there is no taking under eminent domain and thus no compensation paid to the affected landowner who helplessly sees the property reduce in value".

Reducing the floor area ratio—the total floor area on a lot divided by the area of the lot—the case with the downzoning slated for Dutch Kills, in essence means that property owners are prohibited from developing their properties to their full potential. The owner of a property in a downzoned neighborhood, for example, would be prohibited from expanding his building, even if he sought to expand his building on adjoining property that he already owned.

Aside from the obvious detriment to a neighborhood and a city, the forcing out of property owners and small business proprietors from lots they bought in good faith under one set of rules only to be prohibited from developing those lots to their fullest potential because municipal government changed the roles in mid-course is un-American and patently unfair. Such business owners and proprietors stayed while others fled and demonstrated their faith in a city that at times seemed to be foundering under a load of bad debt and mismanagement. For that city to stab them in the back with a downzoning fiat for which they did not ask and have never wanted is rank ingratitude.

We do not argue the need for managed growth and development. That growth and development, however, should not come at the expense of the small businesses that are the backbone of this city's economy. Properties that were bought in good faith by their present owners under a different set of rules can be "grandfathered" into a downzoned neighborhood while real estate transactions conducted after a certain date can be made subject to the new rules set forth by the downzoning regulations. This dilemma is not without workable, practical solutions. Zoning regulations should be devised in such a way as to ensure that the greatest number of people, especially property owners, should be treated as fairly as possible. Downzoning is perfectly legal, within certain limits, and everyone we know accepts that. Under no circumstances, though, should small property owners be cast aside.

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