By Jaimie Julia Winters
Montclair has put a 30-day moratorium on the issuance of demolition permits on homes effective immediately, township manager Timothy Stafford announced today, Feb. 15.
The razing of two older homes this week — along with the planning board’s approval of the Lackawanna Plaza redevelopment plan that includes the demolition of the train platforms — generated a backlash among residents, who wrote to town officials demanding a stop to demolitions.
“Enough is enough,” wrote Ryan Smyth, a fourth-generation Montclairite, on a Facebook post. “I’m completely fed up. [I am] losing my old charming town on a monthly basis at this point. The Undercliff Road demolition put me at my last straw.”
He supplied residents with a letter as well as contact information for the Township Council, suggesting that township officials be emailed.
This morning, thousands of residents received an email in their inboxes from SaveMontclair, a group advocating for historic preservation, which stated in part:
“First it’s the Lackawanna Station and now its historic homes. Now is the time to make it very clear to officials that we value Montclair’s history and assets. Let’s do something about the demolitions and knockdowns of our older homes and historic properties. Your township council and manager need to take immediate action. Montclair is here for residents, not developers. Make this happen. Stop the destruction of our town,” the email stated.
Public pressure may have worked, as the township issued the following statement just before noon:
“Based upon feedback received over the last five days, given that the township has many one-, two-, three- and four-family buildings and structures that are culturally, architecturally and historically significant, given that it is in the township’s best interest, and in the absence of good cause shown, I shall issue on Friday, Feb. 15, 2019 an administrative order instituting a 30-day moratorium on the issuance of new demolition permits for one- two-, three- and four-family buildings and structures. During this time, the governing body can consider any relevant amendments to the Township Code,” wrote Stafford.
The moratorium will not affect pending approved demolition permits and will be for homes only, Stafford said. A list of those applications were not made immediately available. The town will use the 30 days to consider bringing back a no-knockdown law that was rescinded in 2012.
A home at 14 Undercliff Road was razed on Friday, Feb. 8, while a home at 172 Lloyd Road was demolished on Monday, Feb. 11. The two properties are owned by 14 Undercliff LLC, which is building “Lloyd Estate” on the site. According to the application filed in October, Lloyd Estate will have a basketball court, a spa, a gym, a bowling alley, a movie theater, indoor and outdoor pools, a staff wing, a billiards room, a library, a computer lab, a nine-car motor court, two garages, seven guest rooms, three kids’ rooms, a homework room, a master suite with a kitchen and his-and-her balconies — along with typical living quarters such as a family room and a kitchen — all accessible by two elevators.
The application has neither been approved, nor reviewed, although demolition permits were issued. The Historic Preservation Commission will review it on Feb. 28, while the zoning board has it on its March 20 agenda.
Following the demolition of the Marlboro Inn, in 2007 Montclair created “time-of-application rule” or a waiting period of one year for demolition permits of homes 75 years or older. The period was given to derail developers from razing older homes and to allow the permit to be deferred until the Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) could investigate the history of the building, analyze its architectural features and consider whether it should be an official, protected historic landmark. In 2012, planner Janice Talley suggested it be pulled due to changes to the municipal land use regulations, which she said made the local law moot.
Planning board member Martin Schwartz has been a strong advocate for reinstating the no-knockdown law. He points to other towns, such as Jersey City that immediately reworked the law to maintain their protection of homes 95-year-old or older.
“We could have just made language modifications and given new notice to residents at the tax office,” Schwartz said. “This would have effectively kept those preservation provisions in place. It’s shameful that our planning department did not do what was necessary to protect our classic housing assets here. With a little administrative creativity back in 2012, we wouldn’t need to be scrambling now.”
Schwartz, who is Mayor Robert Jackson’s direct designee to the planning board, claims the planning office has stalled the creation of a new law.
In October, 2018, Schwartz presented the planning board with the suggestion of a “light protection zone” for properties 95 years or older, or for properties that are on a list of 1,000 from the 1982 Preservation Montclair study compiled by the Junior League.
Under his suggestion, properties in the historic zones would be flagged on property cards. Suggestions included Historic Preservation Commission oversight for demolition permits for those properties, as well as a one-year wait on demolition to exhaust all other efforts.
In May of last year, the former home of African-American sports hero and business leader Aubrey Lewis was razed, making way for eight single-family homes in the South End of Montclair. The home was built in 1907 by renowned Montclair Arts and Crafts architect Dudley Van Antwerp.
The Historic Preservation of the Master Plan specifies that the HPC should be made aware of, and is allowed to provide advice on, any development that could affect Montclair’s historic landmarks, including proposed changes to adopted zoning ordinances or to adopted elements of the Township Master Plan, and relevant Applications for Development.
The area where the two most recent demolitions occurred is in the Estate District, a proposed historic district.
HPC Chair Kathleen Bennett said the 30-day stop was a great step. But she said, more historic districts need approval, which gives HPC review, and better communication is needed between the planning committees, planning department and the HPC.
“Local [historic] districts are the safest, strongest safeguard for historic preservation,” said Bennett.