BY JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
A group of Montclairites has filed a lawsuit against the Montclair Planning Board and the township over its approval of the Lackawanna Plaza redevelopment.
The suit was filed today, Friday, June 21, in Essex County Superior Court by A Better Lackawanna, LLC, an entity consisting of Montclair taxpayers and historic preservationists; 11 other residents; and Greenwood LLC, a medical office at neighboring 1 Greenwood Ave.
Developers Pinnacle and Hampshire Cos. bought the property in 2014, and plan to build 154 housing units, a 29,000-square-foot supermarket and 111,726 square feet of office retail space at the 7.5-acre site of the former Lackawanna Train Station.
The developers sought relief for the proposed 459 parking spots for the entire site, far less than the required 833. In order to make way for the parking, the plan also includes razing the mall, that since the 1980s, has encased the original train waiting platforms. Historians attempted to have the developers save all of the historic elements of the 1913 station, including the platforms. They suggested the sheds be repurposed for the grocer and that the former Pathmark building be razed instead.
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In May, following 16 hearings and over a year of testimony from supermarket and traffic experts, and historic preservationists, the planning board memorialized the approval of the development that will also allow the developers to raze the sheds. A week later, Preservation New Jersey declared the entire site as one of 10 on its list of New Jersey’s Most Endangered Historic Places for 2019.
“The way the planning board handled this application was disgraceful and demands an appeal. We have documented dozens of procedural irregularities, any one of which could require a new plan,” Priscilla Eshelman, one of the residents behind the suit, told Montclair Local.
The suit, filed by attorney Jay Rice, alleges the planning board’s approval failed to consider — and is in violation of — the master plan, historic preservation ordinances, and parking ordinances of the Township of Montclair.
It also states that planning board members limited the time for public comment on the application, by setting arbitrary time limits and imposing an arbitrary ban on those who were permitted to speak; most notably, on Feb. 11, the suit claims, the night of the final vote, when the site plan for the supermarket was verbally changed from 47,000 square feet to 29,000 square feet, after which no testimony or questioning was permitted by the public.
Although councilwoman and planning board member Robin Schlager recused herself from the final vote on the application, the suit questions her participation in the hearings, contending a conflict of interest.
“Well before the presentation of testimony and evidence on the application was completed, the township council enacted a resolution instructing the planning board to expedite and approve the subject application. Robin Schlager voted in favor of that resolution, even though substantial evidence and testimony had yet to be presented. Robin Schlager could not have, and did not exercise her independent discretion as a member of the planning board,” the suit reads.
Furthermore, it states the planning board failed to consider, among other things, a berm located on the east lot, an easement of Montclair Mews, an apartment building on Grove Street; the Grove Street pedestrian underpass; and possible stream encroachment, “all of which were not properly documented in the applicants’ submissions or considered before approval was granted.”
“There seems to have been a concerted effort to marginalize public opposition, as if only historic preservation was an issue, while completely discounting pushback on obvious negative impacts on the neighborhood. The lack of transparency regarding privatizing the public domain is outrageous. We want safety, quality of life and a supermarket with adequate parking, and this plan has none of that,” Eshelman told Montclair Local.
The suit asks the judge to order a reversal on the determination of the Montclair Township Planning Board; to deny Lackawanna Office, LLC’s application for site plan approval; and for counsel fees, interest and costs of the suit.
Last week advocacy group SaveMontclair sent out a request asking residents if they would want to be named as plaintiffs in a lawsuit challenging the planning board’s approval of the Lackawanna plan.
So far the residents who have signed onto the suit are Eshelman, Caroline Kane Levy, Adam Baker, Linda Cranston, Celeste Walden-Kelley, Cherie Elfenbein and Susan Baggs.
Dozens of residents are expected to be added at a later date, said Eshelman.
“We will continue to educate our friends and neighbors about our objections to the review and approval process of this application. We welcome all who want to join our suit. Democracy is not a spectator sport; we need the community behind us,” Eshelman said.
Planning board members were not available at press time for comment.