By Jaimie Julia Winters
A demolition-review ordinance on Montclair homes that was in the works by township attorney Ira Karasick was rejected by the council, which in turn wants to see a no-knock down law instead.
On Feb. 15, the town issued a 30-day moratorium on the issuance of home demolition permits due to public outcry following the razing of two homes on Undercliff and Lloyd roads. The moratorium, meant to give the council time to come up with a demolition law, will be extended for another 30 days as the attorney works out stronger language for a law the council hopes will save most historical homes from the wrecking ball.
The homes at 14 Undercliff, built in 1865, and 172 Lloyd, built in 1907, were razed in early February, after demolition permits were issued Feb. 5, but prior to zoning board review of an application to build a 60,000-square-foot home on the lots. The demolitions were also not reviewed by the Historic Preservation Commission.
The homes were surveyed for Preservation Montclair in 1982, but were never registered on the current historical register. The area is known as the Estate District and is a proposed historic district.
The Historic Preservation Commission reviewed the application for a proposed home at Undercliff and Lloyd on Thursday, Feb. 28, while the zoning board will hear the application on March 20.
Until 2012, the township had a demolition review of all homes 75 years or older. Property owners who wanted to raze a home had to explore alternatives such as finding another buyer or someone to move the home before approval for demolition was granted. 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. The rule delayed developers from razing older homes, and allowed 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 the rule be pulled due to changes to the municipal land use regulations by the state. Talley said the changes made the local rule moot.
State land-use laws do not allow a municipality to stop a homeowner from demolishing a structure, according to Karasick.
“We don’t have the authority to stop a person from demo-ing. We can make it more difficult, put them through the ringer, but we can’t stop it in the end,” Karasick said, referring to owners’ property rights.
So, currently demolition permits are issued through the building department and have no oversight by the Historic Preservation Commission unless the structure is on the historic registry. In that case, the owner would apply for a certificate of appropriateness, which is required for any facade changes to a historic building. There is no oversight for demolitions through the planning or zoning boards, and the historic preservation commission only acts as an advisory capacity for zoning and planning board applications. And in fact, if a variance is not sought, the only department aware of a demolition on a dwelling not on the historic registry is the building department, which is not required to publicly notify residents or departments of a demolition permit.
Karasick told the Historic Preservation Commission at its Feb. 28 meeting that he could create an ordinance stating that demolition permits be held pending planning board or zoning board review. The board could then decide if razing the structure was in the best interest of the public.
“Right now there’s a gap. Demolition permits have nothing to do with an application for development,” Karasick said.
At the March 5 council meeting, Karasick presented the council with a draft ordinance that would require demolition oversight from either the Historic Preservation Commission or planning or zoning boards. Demolitions of homes listed in the Historic Preservation element, of which there are 4,800, and all structures in historic and potential historic districts — such as the Estate Section — would require a certificate of appropriateness triggering a review. The two houses razed in February were listed on the Historic Preservation Element and therefore would have prompted a review if an ordinance had been in place, said Karasick. Other demolitions resulting in new build outs would be most likely be going through the zoning or the planning boards and would have oversight there.
But the council said this does not go far enough.
“I don’t see this as having any teeth. We want a strong anti-knock down ordinance,” Mayor Robert Jackson said.
But Karasick said that even state, local and national landmarks are not safe from demolition.
“We can only delay it,” he said, adding that refusing a demolition could be challenged in court due to property rights.
“You can tell me that someone can legally challenge it. OK,” said Jackson.
Karasick said he will look at other towns’ knock-down laws such as Princeton and Jersey City where all demolitions go through officers who rule on all demolitions on anything 95 years or older.
Tom Connolly, the historic preservation commission consultant, said that in the Plainfield ordinance all demolitions require public notification.