The Historic Preservation Commission has denied a couple’s application to raze this home 109 Union Street.
COURTESY PLANNING DEPARTMENT

By JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
winters@montclairlocal.news

The couple seeking to demolish their home at 109 Union St. claimed they have the go-ahead to raze it even without the Historic Preservation Commission’s blessing, because a time limit set by law had expired. 

So they didn’t show up for a scheduled hearing on Sept. 3.

The HPC however went ahead with the hearing, dismissing the 45-day time limit and unanimously denying the owners’ application to take down the home. Commission officials contended that prior hearings were postponed due to missing information, and by the applicants themselves, and that the home has historic merit.

In the first request to come before the HPC for demolition of a home since a new “knockdown” law was enacted last year, owners Steven and Leah Meranus claimed the home needs to be demolished due to extensive asbestos contamination and shoddy renovations.

Township Attorney Ira Karasick told commission members they could proceed with the hearing with or without the applicants. The original application was filed June 10, but it was deemed incomplete and they were asked for more information, delaying the hearing set for July. Although the applicants supplied the information on Aug. 6, they then asked that the Aug. 27 hearing be postponed due to a time conflict with their attorney and that it instead be held in September. 

That move pushed the time frame past the 45 days within which demolition applications need to be heard by law or else be considered approved. According to Karasick, the applicants then deemed that the demolition had been approved.

“I don’t accept that. There is the 45-day rule in our ordinance, but again more information was requested, delay was by the applicants asked [in August] and was given. Under these facts the application is still alive,” Karasick said, adding that the applicants can appeal to the Zoning Board of Adjustment. 

The couple, who bought the property in 2017 for $1,400,000 and planned to renovate it, claim that the house cannot be fully and safely abated due to asbestos contamination, according to the application.

The 1905 Tudor-revival home was probably designed by A.F. Norris, who was responsible for the houses in the area that were developed on the Russell estate.

The property is located within the First Residential Historic District, a New Jersey Register of Historic Places district. The district contains about 240 structures built between 1740 and 1932. 

In March 2018 the couple began renovating the home, including plumbing work, installation of HVAC units and ductwork, lighting improvements and basement sheetrock. In the course of these renovations, their application says, their contractor committed an egregious error that caused a water leak. 

In attempting to repair the leak, the contractor removed portions of the asbestos-containing plaster ceiling and walls, thereby causing asbestos to be released into the home. This required the owners to relocate while the home underwent extensive and costly remediation to remove the contamination.

A report for the HPC by Tom Connolly, of Connolly & Hickey, recommended that the home be preserved. 

“However sympathetic the MHPC is to the owner’s predicament, the application does not adequately substantiate the need to remove the building based on the review criteria for total demolition set forth in Montclair’s code. Although [a] letter to Mr. Meranus of May 27, 2020, states that the structure will be compromised by the removal of the remaining asbestos, [its author] does not appear to be a structural engineer to substantiate the claim that the structure would be compromised through the removal of the remaining asbestos nor whether it would not be feasible to repair the structure once the asbestos is fully remediated,” Connolly’s report said.

“Furthermore, there is no independent assessment on the technical feasibility or difference in cost for rehabilitation of the existing structure compared to the demolition and construction of a new single‐family home with similar attributes to substantiate the economic hardship presented in the application.” 

Supplemental information provided by the applicant also does not indicate there is currently a public health or safety issue given the building’s current condition, according to  Connolly’s report.  

The couple is claiming hardship, as they moved out of the home in October 2018, living in temporary housing at a cost of approximately $8,000 per month in addition to paying $8,000 each month for their mortgage on the Union Street property.

Their insurance company, Chubb, has paid almost $700,000 for asbestos remediation costs with the project nowhere near completion, according to the couple. 

According to the application, Chubb determined that the project is a “total loss,” and it has agreed to pay the balance of the insurance proceeds to the applicants toward the cost of constructing a new residence on the property. 

An ABS Environmental report dated May 27 and supplied by the applicant concluded the asbestos contamination is “so severe and extensive that the house cannot be fully and safely abated without demolishing the structure.” 

In May 2019, the Township Council approved a no-knockdown law that requires the HPC to review planning or zoning applications for structures on the historic registry or in a historic-designated area and amends land-use and oversight procedures when a property owner seeks a demolition permit.