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The Historic Preservation Commission was seeking Landmark Designations for Wheeler Street (shown) and Oakcroft Street. Residents spoke out against the designations.
COURTESY PLANNING DEPARTMENT

By JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
winters@montclairlocal.news

The Montclair Historic Preservation Commission will vote tonight, Thursday, Jan. 9, to withdraw pending local landmark nominations for Oakcroft and Wheeler Street areas after residents spoke out against the designation over property-rights concerns.

Residents of the areas packed a December commission meeting speaking against the nominations contending 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.

The commission also received letters of protest from 54 percent — 61 of the 113 property owners — in the Oakcroft area and 52 percent — 50 of the 97 property owners — in the Wheeler Street area, according to commission chair Kathleen Bennett.

“After consideration of this protest opposition, I will offer a motion at the meeting on Jan. 9 to my fellow commissioners to withdraw the pending nominations before the commission and recommend the Oakcroft and Wheeler Street areas not be designated,” Bennett wrote in a letter to residents. 

Cultural resource surveys and draft nomination proposals for the two neighborhoods were prepared for the township by Margaret Hickey of Connolly & Hickey Historical Architects funded through a $25,000 Historic Preservation Fund grant awarded to the township by the New Jersey Historic Preservation Office.

The firm studied a total of 210 properties, 97 in the area of Wheeler Street and 113 in the area of Oakcroft Street.

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 in December, but after receiving complaints that a public notice dated Nov. 21 only gave nine days to protest in writing, Bennett said the hearings would be extended to Dec. 10 and conclude on Jan. 9. 

If the landmark designations had gone through, 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: 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), repairs or exact replacements and paint colors would not require a certificate of appropriateness.

Wheeler and Oakcroft areas developed at the same time, but in radically different ways.

Wheeler Street residents argued at the December meeting that the area was, and still is, a predominantly working-class neighborhood. 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. Forty-one percent of the homes are non-contributing, meaning they don’t fit into the historical designation.

Resident Paul Weingartner told the commission in December that the homes 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.

Residents argued 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.

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. 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. 

Frank Davis of Lincoln Street offered to pay up to $50,000 for an attorney to fight the designation. 

“The commission looks forward to 2020 and additional ways to engage residents in the value of historic preservation. Thank you for your participation and Happy New Year,” wrote Bennett.

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