Longtime Montclair resident Samuel Debnam, spoke to the council on May 1, regarding an application to subdivide his property, which was not passed by the planning board. Several local residents came out in support of Debnam’s application during the council meeting.

By Tina Pappas

for Montclair Local

Community members appealed to the council to grant a property subdivision on behalf of a well-known senior citizen so that he could afford to stay in Montclair where he raised his family.

An application for the subdivision was denied at a Feb. 26 planning board meeting after a tie vote resulted in preventing the approval for the property subdivision at 448 Washington Ave. Ninety-six-year-old Samuel Debnam, who many residents regard as a long-time pillar of the community, sought the subdivision so he could sell half his property to a developer for the construction of a one-family home. Debnam said the sale of half his property was the only way he could afford to stay in the township after exhausting his reverse mortgage.

The subdivision, presented by developer Mitchell MacGregor, required planning board approval to allow a change from the required 60 feet to two 50-foot-wide lots. Debnam’s attorney Alan Trembulak, in his arguments for allowing the 50-foot properties, referred to the planning board’s recent recommendation to the council that the lot width in the Forth Ward neighborhood change from 60 feet to 50 feet. The application had initial support from planning board chair John Wynn. However, after some residents voiced opposition of the subdivision contending sunlight and density would be changed on the block, several planning board members ultimately voted against the application.

Community members recalled to the council how the Debnam family had helped them throughout their lives. Mayor Robert Jackson said he also had a connection with Debnam, whose parents helped raise him. Charles Williams, longtime resident and former legislative director to Lt. Governor Sheila Oliver, called for the council to investigate the grounds of the application’s rejection.

“He’s a World War II veteran,” said Williams. “How is it that other locations with similar lots were approved? How does it get determined? Developers come from all over the place and they pass right through.”

Roger Terry, former councilman, also spoke on Debnam’s behalf, stating Debnam has served the community for decades and deserved proper consideration.

Debnam presented photos of other similarly-sized lots on his street that had been subdivided, and showing that sunlight would not be compromised as a result of the subdivision. He also refuted comments about the potential for students who walk to school to be put in danger if the subdivision brought in more traffic, stating students on his block get bused and do not walk. He said he cannot sell his home due to the reverse mortgage, which became exhausted, and that he is in need of money.

“I served the town very well,” he added.

Jackson called Debnam “an icon to this community” and greatly respected.
“Any sense of injustice applied to that family hits me personally because I view it as my family,” the mayor said. “This is a family that has made a tremendous impact on our community.”

Jackson stated he was not accusing planning board members of any wrong-doing, but reiterated that he and Wynn would continue to have discussions and look into why the application failed to pass.