planning board
Planning board members are concerned that a demolition-review law could go too far in including houses that are not necessarily historic.
ADAM ANIK/ FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL

BY JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
winters@montclairlocal.news

More than half of the properties in Montclair could fall under a new review process if the owners sought to demolish 50 percent or more of a structure, according to township attorney Ira Karasick, who has drafted a demolition-review ordinance.

On June 10, planning board members weighed in on the proposed ordinance, considering both the rights of property owners and also the need for historic preservation. But all agreed that owners of properties without significant historic value shouldn’t have to go through an arduous process when making changes to their homes. Some members were concerned that could be the case with the current draft.

In February, the town issued a stop on all demolition permits following public alarm over the demolition of two mansions on Lloyd and Undercliff roads.

On May 14, the town extended the moratorium for the third time, 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.

Over the last few years, about 10 structures on average come down a year in Montclair, according to Karasick.

The number of protected structures in Montclair under the new ordinance would be substantially expanded, from 1,500 to over 5,000, and would include both commercial and residential.

Currently, only structures that are designated historical by local, state or federal agencies require a Certificate of Appropriateness for any facade changes and therefore are reviewed by the Historic Preservation Commission.

Under the proposed ordinance, any structure on the local, state or federal lists, as well as any structure on a list of about 1,500 compiled by the Junior League over a four-day period in the 1980s and any structure that is within a historical or potential historical district — regardless of its age — would now be reviewed.

Some planning board members took issue with the number of homes that would now be included in demolition review process and that those homeowners had no input on their homes being placed on the list.

“Eighty percent have no business being on this list,” said member Anthony Ianuale, referring to structures that fall within a historic district or potential district but are not old.

Chairman John Wynn felt that the new “designation” was confusing and lacked due process.

“A special interest group put you on a list,” he said. “It’s unofficial, there was no procedure. The Junior League didn’t talk to the owner.”

Karasick said structures that would trigger a review when permits are applied for 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. That initial review would be cursory, he said.

Permit applications for structures on the list, or structures within a historic district or potential district, would be flagged and then referred to a three-person review board, which would include a preservation officer and two Historic Preservation Commission members. The review board 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.

This process had some members concerned with costs and time entailed with a review for structures that are not historically significant.

“People have spoken, they are against these demos,” said member Martin Schwartz.

Karasick said he could make the initial review process swift.

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 process, Karasick noted.

Planning board members voted for the demolition review ordinance noting some revisions they would like to see, but with Ianuale and Daniel Gilmer voting against it.

Two ordinances have been created. The first ordinance requires the planning board and the board of adjustment to “refer to the Historic Preservation Commission 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.

Following the demolition of the Marlboro Inn in 2007, Montclair created a “time-of-application rule,” a waiting period for demolition permits. The rule delayed developers from razing homes 75 years or older 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, the rule was pulled from the books due to changes to the New Jersey’s municipal land use law.