BY JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
About 30 residents of Oakcroft and Wheeler streets concerned with property rights spoke out against declaring their two neighborhoods as local landmark districts at the Dec. 10 Montclair Historic Commission meeting. Specifically, the residents contend that the local landmark district designation would hinder their ability to upkeep or make changes to their homes by creating an expensive bureaucratic approval process, and hurt the resale of the properties.
Cultural resource surveys and draft nomination proposals for the two neighborhoods were prepared for the township by Margaret Hickey of Connolly & Hickey Historical Architects. The firm studied a total of 210 properties: 97 in the area of Wheeler Street and 113 in the area of Oakcroft Street.
Under the town’s ordinance for alterations of a structure in a local landmark district, homeowners could be required to apply for a Certificate of Appropriateness when making changes to their facades, with plans being approved by the Historic Preservation Commision.
A Certificate of Appropriateness is issued for any major modifications to a house that can be visible from the street, including:
- • Any demolition or improvement of any structure;
- • Relocation of a structure;
- • Change in exterior elevation of any structure or any improvement by addition, alteration or replacement;
- • New construction of a principal or accessory structure; and
- • Any change in existing or addition of new signs or exterior lighting.
Changes to interiors, changes not visible to the public (other than relocation or demolition), and repairs or exact replacements would not require a certificate of appropriateness by the Historic Preservation Commission.
An applicant will come before the commission for a hearing, often with their architects, with construction documents and blueprints describing the extent and nature of the work, officials said.
The surveys and nominations were funded by a $25,000 Historic Preservation Fund grant awarded to the township by the New Jersey Historic Preservation Office.
The Wheeler and Oakcroft nominations were first discussed at a Historic Preservation Commission meeting on Nov. 12. The Historic Preservation Commission had sought to vote through the designations this month, but after receiving complaints that a public notice dated Nov. 21 only gave nine days to protest in writing, commission chair Kathleen Bennett said the hearings would be extended to Dec. 10 and Jan. 9.
Property owners had the ability to submit a protest against historic landmark designation filed with the commission 10 days prior to the Dec. 10 hearing date. Protests must be signed by the owners of 30 percent or more of the properties within a proposed historic landmark district.
Eight Oakcroft and 20 Wheeler street residents wrote letters in protest of the designations.
Wheeler Street and Oakcroft Street are being reviewed as two separate projects, said assistant planner Graham Petto.
Most of the protests came from Wheeler Street residents. The area was, and still is, a predominantly working-class neighborhood, residents said. The homes were built primarily from 1910 to 1930 around the former strawboard factory founded by J.G. Wheeler along Toney’s Brook. The neighborhood now covers Wheeler Street, Maple Avenue, Lincoln Street, Willowdale Avenue and Monroe Place. The Maple Avenue School, now Glenfield Middle School, was built in 1896. Forty-one percent of the homes are non-contributing, meaning they don’t fit into the historical designation.
Paul Weingartner pointed to the fact that the homes that date from 1910 to 1930 are working class houses, saying there was “nothing special here.”
“We don’t want your interlopers in our neighborhood telling us what to do,” he added.
Wheeler Street resident Gay Overbey-Cole discussed the pride residents take in the history of the working-class neighborhood that was originally settled by Italian immigrants, and later by African American families who moved to New Jersey from Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina and South Carolina during the Great Migration in the early 20th century. Overbey-Cole and other residents suggested that the history of the neighborhood be documented without placing restrictions on home improvements.
Most said they don’t have the time to attend hearings, nor the money for filing fees for a certificate of appropriateness to get approval on improvements to their properties.
“I don’t want to pay $100 or more to change my steps or plant flowers or paint my house,” Overbey-Cole said.
The commission does not regulate paint colors, but it does have a palette of recommended paint colors.
Jeffrey Darby of the Glen Ridge Historical Commission, where about 90 percent of the town is within a local landmark district, said the commission only has oversight on what is seen from the street.
“Residents get advice from architects, lawyers, and builders [on their projects],” he said. “The goal is to say yes, to find a common ground.”
Last year, out of 49 applications for improvements in Glen Ridge, none were denied, he said.
Many upper- and middle-class families who began arriving in Montclair in the mid-19th century due to the expansion of the railroad took up residence on Oakcroft Street.
The neighborhood, adjacent to Anderson Park, includes Brookfield Road, North Mountain Avenue, Edgemont Road and Princeton Place. Wheeler and Oakcroft developed at the same time, but in radically different ways, Hickey said.
Don Rifkin of Edgemont Road said he was concerned with a potential increase in taxes, upgrade delays and potential buyers not wanting to purchase a home with restrictions.
Michael Matthews of Princeton Place said he felt the designation was being “done to us, not for us.”
“This room is filled with people who have nothing better to do than defend our property rights,” Kanstantin Caploon of Brookfield Road. “People have been maintaining this neighborhood fine for years. They don’t want to beg for permission to change their leaded windows to get more efficient windows to save energy.”
Two residents, Lisanne Renner and Ilmar Vanderer, did speak in favor of the designations contending that the designation would just manage “curb appeal.”
Frank Davis of Lincoln Street said that he would fight any restrictions when it comes to his home, his taxes, his money, or his renovations. To the crowd, he offered $50,000 for an attorney to fight the designation.
On Jan. 9, the commission will vote on whether to send the historic district proposals on to the township council. From there, the council and the planning board will decide how to proceed.
Montclair currently has four local landmark districts: Pine Street, Watchung Plaza, Upper Montclair Historic District along Bellevue and Valley, and the Town Center along Bloomfield. All four were nominated for landmark district status between 2002 and 2012.