The sixth item on last night’s City Council agenda was deferred to an unknown date. This last minute change likely came after community pushback. Alarmingly, the item called for the appointment of the 23-year-old son of a political donor to replace his own brother on the powerful, Zoning Board of Appeals.
What’s the ZBA?
The Zoning Board of Appeals consists of seven members appointed by the Mayor and approved by the City Council. Their mandate reviews requests for area and use variances and other appeals related to the city’s Zoning Ordinance. Plainly put, if you wish to build something that violates current code, the ZBA can grant you an exception.
In the past year, these exceptions have been plentiful and exorbitant. Lately, the ZBA routinely approves variances for about half the parking as required by the City. Furthermore, the buildings themselves are becoming massively oversized. Both the height and footprint of buildings are vastly exceeding the local zoning ordinances without much debate-despite residents’ concerns.
However, one such building slated for approval for a height twice the allowed size hit a wall when a dedicated resident’s association campaigned for months with petitions and protests. Ultimately, this pressure campaign resulted in the developer themselves rescinding their ZBA application.
Interested in influence
Last year in April 2022, the mayor appointed the 25-year-old Anthony Gjelaj to this vastly important board. Despite his youth and inexperience, his occupation as a property manager seemed justification enough when his appointment came to a vote before the city council. But that job was in his family’s company, Gjelaj Management, run by his father, Lewis Gjelaj.
Lewis Gjelaj manages a vast portfolio of properties across Westchester County and the Bronx. He also owns the building on 470 Nepperhan Avenue which is home to the Yonkers Industrial Development Agency.
But, the Gjelaj reach does not end with their properties. In a thorough analysis of Mayor Mike Spano‘s political campaign donations this year, Chris McKenna for Journal News/LoHud highlighted Gjelaj’s generous contributions. Per McKenna’s June 2023 report, over $20,000 transferred from Gjelaj to Spano’s re-election campaign for an unprecedented fourth term.
City Council members Shanae Williams and John Rubbo have also received political campaign donations from the Gjelaj family.
The best man for the job?
After a 18 months, the 25-year-old Anthony Gjelaj appears to have completed his stint on the ZBA. Now, his even younger 23-year-old brother, Christian, has been nominated to vote in his (or his father’s) stead. With the October 10th vote on this confirmation deferred, an interview for the position is said to be scheduled with Christian next week.
But, only time will tell if the younger Gjelaj kin’s appointment comes to a full council vote. And if the council votes to approve his appointment, will he also go walkabout after a year just like his brother? In that case, what other relative may step up to retain the family’s voting power over developments across the city?