BY JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
Demolition permit approval will soon be handled by the Historic Preservation Commission, moving it out of the hands of the building department.
Since February, the town has placed a stop on all home demolition permits following public alarm over the razing of mansions on Lloyd and Undercliff roads, including one that dated back to the Civil War.
The demolition moratorium applied only to one-, two-, three- and four-family residences that are individually identified or are located in districts identified in the Historic Preservation Element of the township’s Master Plan as having historic significance or potential historic significance.
In March, however, a Central Avenue home was demolished without a permit and before the township was made aware.
The number of protected structures in Montclair under the new ordinance would substantially expand, 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.
A list of the structures, and the districts they are located in, would be kept with the planning department.
The ordinance details the jurisdiction of the planning and zoning boards as regulating what can be built on property, not whether a structure can be demolished. The Municipal Land Use Law gives the HPC approval power concerning historic preservation, pertaining to aspects not determined as land use, and therefore should oversee demo permits, the law reads.
Total demolition is defined as “substantially” dismantling 50 percent or more of the structure or any visible facade.
The ordinance states that work associated with a development application already approved by the planning board or zoning board is exempt from the ordinance. Future applications would fall under the review process by the historic administrative officer and the HPC.
That review process would include: the building’s historical, architectural, cultural and aesthetic significance; its original use; its importance to the township and if the removal will be detrimental to the landmark district and/or to the public interest; the extent to which it is of such old, unusual or uncommon design, craftsmanship, texture or material that it could not be reproduced; the extent to which its retention would promote business, attract tourists and artists, and encourage study; the probable impact of its removal upon the ambience of the landmark district.
Also taken into consideration will be the structural soundness and integrity of the building and the economic feasibility of its restoration to allow for use, and the threat to public safety as a result of deterioration or disrepair of the building.
If the building is owned by a nonprofit or charitable organization, interference with its charitable purposes will be a consideration for allowing demolition.
Any building deemed unsafe by fire department officials or construction code officials would be exempt from the review.
HOW IT WOULD WORK
Township attorney Ira 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.
The new law, introduced at the Oct. 29 council meeting, does not state penalties however.
HPC member David Greenbaum noted his concerns over the lack of penalties.
“Who’s to say that they won’t ask forgiveness after the fact?” he asked.
He also said that the ordinance doesn’t address demolition by neglect, when a property owner neglects a building to point it must be razed due to safety issues.
Historic Preservation Commission chair Kathleen Bennet said although the commission reviewed a former ordinance and sent back their comments, she is not seeing all the suggested changes reflected in the ordinance. She also had concerns with penalties being omitted from the law. The commission was unaware that it was being introduced on Oct. 29.
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 the roughly 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 the demolition of 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.
As a result, developers can raze first and seek a variance later. That was the case with the homes on Undercliff and Lloyd.