About 50 people attended Monday night’s Township Planning Board meeting on a developer’s request for a setback variance to develop Lewis Estates. LINDA MOSS/STAFF


A developer faced questions from the Township Planning Board and residents on Monday night about a setback variance it is seeking in order to subdivide and build eight houses on the site of the Lewis Estates on Pleasant Avenue.

Roughly 50 people attended the hearing, which was continued until April 3, about the approval sought by BNE Real Estate Group of Livingston for its residential project at 44 Pleasant Ave. The company is asking to be permitted a 25-foot setback from Pleasant Avenue, less than half of the roughly 53-foot minimum that would be required under one part of the township code.

BNE Real Estate plans to raze the house on the Lewis Estates site, which is just over 2.5 acres, and subdivide the property to build eight single-family homes. There would be four houses on each side of a new road that would be built, to be named Lewis Court, which ends in a cul-de-sac. The Lewis house dates back to 1906, and was once the residence of Aubrey Lewis, a prominent African-American township resident who died in 2001. Although there was a discussion of the proposed development’s water retention system and how affordable its homes would be, much of the 2 1/2-hour hearing was about the setback.

At the meeting, Michael Lanzafama, director of engineering for Casey & Keller Inc. in Millburn, was asked by Jason DeSalvo, who was acting as the board’s chair, why the developer had opted for a plan with eight houses with lots averaging about 11,000 square feet, rather than six houses with lots of about 14,600 square feet, more in line with the average of the neighborhood. A six-house site plan wouldn’t require a setback variance, according to DeSalvo.

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“Why weren’t six lots rather than eight lots considered, because that would solve your problem altogether?” DeSalvo said, prompting applause from the audience.

Lanzafama, BNE Real Estate’s engineer, told the board that to comply with one part of the municipal code, the Lewis project’s setback would have to be the average of the two principal structures nearest to it, which is 27.3 feet for an adjacent house and 79.1 feet for the nearby Over the Rainbow Nursery, a preschool. The setbacks for those buldings average average 53.2 feet, according to the engineer.

Under questioning by BNE Real Estate’s land-use attorney, Richard Schkolnick, Lanzafama said that the eight-house development was in keeping with the state’s master-plan goal of providing quality housing stock where infrastructure already exists.

The engineer added, “The lots we’re proposing are not that different than the neighborhood analysis that we performed.”

But the board dug into the setback issue, with DeSalvo asking for the setback lengths for properties near the Lewis Estates. On its side of Pleasant Avenue, the setbacks varied but included 77.5 feet, 43.3 feet and 41.1 feet, according to Lanzafama.

“I think we’ve established enough of a pattern that none of those numbers relate to 25 (feet),” DeSalvo said.

The Lewis Estates home on Pleasant Avenue, built in 1906, will be razed to make way for eight houses under a proposed plan. LINDA MOSS/STAFF

Lanazafama noted that on the opposite side of Pleasant Avenue, the setbacks were much close to the roadway, and ranged from 22 to 40 feet.

“Typically, one looks at the side of the street that you’re building on,” DeSalvo told him.

“We wanted to give you a sense of how eclectic the setbacks are,” Lanzafama replied.

During the public’s chance to ask questions, a resident who lives across the street from Lewis Estates, Michael Polo, asked how much the proposed houses would sell for.

“Income diversity is an important issue,” Polo said.

At a meeting about the project on Presidents Day, Feb. 20, the developer had already disclosed that the homes would be priced at $800,000 to $900,000, a fact that William Scott told the planning board. Scott, co-chair of the Montclair Housing Commission, asked about BNE Real Estate’s compliance with the township’s affordable housing guidelines.

Schkolnick said that the developer is only required to contribute 1.5 percent of the equalized assessed value of the properties to the township’s affordable housing fund.

The attorney also said that the developer has addressed residents’ concerns about the entrances of the two proposed homes that are on Pleasant Avenue but don’t face that road, but rather Lewis Court. Under the revamped design, the sides of the houses that face Pleasant Avenue will be “made to appear more like the front of a house, with with doors providing side entrances to the premises,” according to Schkolnick.

“We have listened to the community where we can … to essentially soften this view,” he said.

Having those two houses face Pleasant Avenue would also require creating curb cuts to that road for driveways, which Lanzafama said would be detrimental.

During the hearing the attorney stressed that BNE Real Estate has an eight-house subdivision plan.

But DeSalvo brought up making the project six houses rather than eight several times.

“It may not be as profitable to the owner: That’s not our purview,” he said. “It’s land use … That’s [six houses] a no-variance plan. This [eight houses] is a variance plan.”