The council introduced an ordinance that gives the Historic Preservation Commission more oversight with demolition permits.
ADAM ANIK/ FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL

BY JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
winters@montclairlocal.news

The first step in moving the approval of demolition permits on historic structures from the building department to the Historic Preservation Commission was approved by the council last Tuesday.

The council introduced two ordinances — one that gives Historic Preservation Commission review of planning or zoning applications for structures on the historical registry or in a historic designated area; and another, which amends land use and oversight procedures when a property owner seeks a demolition permit.

In February, the town issued a stop on all demolition permits following public alarm over the razings of Lloyd and Undercliff mansions—including one that dated back to the Civil War.

On Tuesday, May 14, the town extended the moratorium another 30 days, but amended it to apply only to those buildings or structures that are individually identified or located in districts identified in the Historic Preservation Element of the Township’s Master Plan as having historic significance or potential historic significance.

Karasick said the number of protected structures in Montclair under the new ordinance would be substantially expanded, from 1,500 to upwards of 4,000, and include both commercial and residential. A historic structure is defined as one designated as such by federal, state or local bodies or one that falls within a historic or potentially historic district. Structures with a direct link to a historical person or event could also be considered historic.

Karasick said structures defined as historic would 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.

At the council meeting, Councilman Rich McMahon cautioned about defining historic houses and wanted to know if property owners would be notified if their homes make the list.

“Historic districts don’t necessarily all have historic homes. A house in a historic district could be built in 1980,” McMahon said.

HOW IT WOULD WORK

The first ordinance introduced on May 7 requires the planning board and the board of adjustment to “refer to the Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) every application for development in historic zoning districts or on historic sites designated on the zoning or official map or identified in the Historic Preservation Element of the Master Plan.”

Referral will not occur with applications that involve changes to interiors or changes not visible to the public other than relocation or demolition, the ordinance further states.

The second ordinance creates a procedure for the issuance of demolition and some construction permits in historic areas where a variance is not sought.

A certificate of appropriateness will be required for any permit request for an addition, alteration, replacement or substantial or total demolition on a building or site that is designated or located within a designated local, state or national landmark site, according to the ordinance.

Karasick said permit applications for structures on the list would be flagged and then referred to a three-person review board, which would include a preservation officer and two HPC members. It would have 45 days by state law to review and create a report of its evaluation on the property’s historic status, and 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. If the zoning board upholds the commission’s decision, the applicant would then have to take the matter to court. If granted, a “total demolition permit” will be issued.

In the end, property owners will still be able to perform demolitions, as the ordinance merely buys the township time to delay the inevitable, Karasick noted. Although towns such as Morristown, Jersey City and Princeton have demolition ordinances, state land-use laws do not allow a municipality to stop a homeowner from ultimately demolishing a structure.

For instance in Morristown, if a property owner’s appeal on a denied demolition permit is upheld, the applicant only has to wait nine months before demolition. Many towns also require public notifications of all approved demolitions. Montclair’s ordinance does not require public notice.  

But delay periods of demolition moratoriums do allow preservationists time to attempt to save the property by raising money for its purchase or helping the owner find viable use alternatives.

Created in 2007, Montclair’s now-defunct “time-of-application rule,” created a waiting period of one year for demolition permits for homes 75 years old or older. But it was pulled in 2012 due to changes in the state land-use law. The law does allow the HPC to have approval power over land uses not being heard by either zoning or planning boards.

CURRENT LOOPHOLES

Currently there’s some loopholes that allow homes to be razed without oversight.

Demolition permits are issued now through the Montclair building department and have no oversight by the Historic Preservation Commission, unless the structure is one of about 1,500 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 at all or sought after the demo, the only department aware of a demolition on a dwelling not on the historic registry is the building department. That department is not required to publicly notify residents or departments of a demolition permit.

As a result, developers can raze first and seek a variance later. That was the case with the homes on Undercliff and Lloyd. The homes were surveyed for Preservation Montclair in 1982, but were never registered on the historical register, and so never triggered a review for a certificate of appropriateness.

Recently, a Central Avenue home was razed with the property owners being granted permits for an addition and interior changes. The home was dismantled over a few days before the building department issued a stop-work order.

The ordinance will now be sent to the planning and zoning boards for input.

The mayor and council rejected Karasick’s first draft of a demolition-review ordinance in March, instead directing him to pen a no-knock-down ordinance.

Kelly Nicholaides contributed to this article.