The township attorney presented the Historic Preservation Commission with a draft of an ordinance that would put the commission in charge of demolition approval.
ADAM ANIK /FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL

By JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
winters@montclaorlocal.news

A no-knock-down ordinance has been drafted that will give the Historic Preservation Commission a direct role in the decision-making process, according to township attorney Ira Karasick.

Officials issued a home-demolition moratorium on Feb. 15 due to public outcry following the razing of two older homes on Undercliff and Lloyd roads.

The moratorium gave Karasick time to draft either a demolition-review ordinance or a stronger no-knock-down law. The mayor and council rejected a demolition-review ordinance on Montclair homes on March 5, instead directing Karasick to pen a no-knock-down ordinance.

Now he has, and he told the Historic Preservation Commission at its April 25 meeting that the 13-page document “is aimed at that one particular evil — total demolition.”

Until 2012, the township had a demolition review that pertained to 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 a demolition could be granted.

Although towns such as Jersey City, Princeton, Millburn and Plainfield have demolition review ordinances on the books, state land-use laws do not allow a municipality to stop a homeowner from ultimately demolishing a structure.

But the state’s land-use law does advise that “the appropriate local authority must refer the application to the historic preservation commission if the project crosses a historic zoning district or historic site.” The municipal land use law gives the commission the authority on applications that aren’t going through planning or zoning boards process.

“Boards regulate what’s being built, not what’s being torn down,” said Karasick.

The Aubrey Lewis Estate met the wrecking ball in 2017 after residents fought to save it.
Deborah Ann Tripoldi / STAFF

“Other towns with demolition review allow for demolitions in the end if the applicant has followed all the procedures, which are usually burdensome and take time,” Karasick said. “But this ordinance doesn’t allow for that.” Instead, said Karasick, the ordinance would force the applicant to go to court if his demolition request was rejected by Montclair authorities.

The draft ordinance defines a historic structure as one designated as such by federal, state or local bodies or one that falls within a historic district. It would also include structures within a district that is currently under a historic study for future designation. Age of the structure would not come into play. Karasick said it would expand the number of protected structures in Montclair from 1,500 to upwards of 5,000, both commercial and residential.

Structures defined as historic would then be annotated on tax cards, and a list of the structures and the districts they are located in would be kept with the planning department. Permit applications for structures on the list would be flagged and then referred to the Historic Preservation Commission, which within 45 days would report back to a historic preservation officer its evaluation on the property’s historic status. The commission would then issue a ruling on whether a demolition permit should be granted or rejected.

If the permit is rejected, the applicant can then appeal through the zoning board. A representative from the Historic Preservation Commission would be required to give testimony at the hearing to defend its findings. If the zoning board upholds the commission’s decision, the applicant would then have to take the matter to court.

The applicant would pay for the cost of the review by the historic preservation officer. The officer could be hired on a consultant basis or be an employee within the planning department.

The need for a concrete definition of total demolition versus partial demolition, which allows developers to demolish a building down to one wall or the foundation, still needs clarifying, said Karasick.

Montclair’s now defunct “time-of-application rule,” with a waiting period of one year for demolition permits, was created in 2007, following the demolition of the Marlboro Inn. The rule delayed developers from razing older homes at 75 years old, and allowed the permit to be deferred until the Historic Preservation Commission 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 made by the state to the municipal land-use regulations. Talley said the changes made the local rule moot.

Currently, demolition permits are issued through the Montclair building department and have no oversight by the Historic Preservation Commission unless the structure is on the historic registry. In that case, the owner applies 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 in 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.