By MAX GOLDMAN
Special to Montclair Local
I had the opportunity to watch Montclair’s Historic Preservation Commission meeting on Thursday, Sept. 23rd. The hot topic — and the subject of over two and a half hours of testimony, questions, discussion and debate — was the demolition application for a home on Union Street.
In full disclosure, the owners of the home are friends, and my wife and I tuned in via WebEx in part out of curiosity for how such things are handled in our town, and in part to support them — if only with our virtual presence.
Having now witnessed these proceedings, I beseech you fellow residents: Before you should ever have the bad luck to come before this amateur, undisciplined, capricious body — pay attention. The manner in which this commission conducts itself should scare every one of us who owns and resides in one of the many historic homes in town.
By way of background, the specific application was to demolish an admittedly beautiful 1905 home that suffered a particularly terrible set of cascading events. First was a leak on an upper floor that a bad and now bankrupt contractor fixed by carelessly ripping open asbestos-laden plaster walls. Then, they blasted the HVAC system and powerful fans to dry out the house — spreading the asbestos into every nook and cranny while the family was in residence.
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Over years, the family has tried to remediate it so they could move back in, but every wall and ceiling had to come down, every corner cleaned to exacting standards, and even still no expert can give them confidence that it would be safe for contractors to work in, much less for the family to live in. In fact, the home is literally “red tagged” as unlivable by the town. According to the experts at the hearing, to ensure it is safe, the house, already down to the studs, would have to be structurally disemboweled at exorbitant cost — with deep uncertainty around how much of the facade could even be preserved. This, after half the home’s purchase price has already been spent in attempted repairs.
However any of us might have voted, the scary part is this: In the end, instead of reviewing the record in front of them and voting based on that data relative to established standards, several members of the commission just simply chose to ignore it — evidence be damned. Instead of relying on the many written reports or the expert testimony they received, it came down to the personal views — almost certainly held prior to hearing any evidence at all — of members Kathleen Bennett, Caroline Kane Levy and David Greenbaum that ultimately doomed the application.
While several members — Jason Hyndman, Michael Graham and Stephen Rooney — seemed committed to a fair-minded evaluation of the evidence, the others let zealotry prevail.
“I believe it can be done,” a sentiment expressed by Commissioner Kane Levy during the proceedings, is an improper substitute for expert testimony and detailed reports. Such a position represents a lazy standard that should not suffice for any judgment, much less a public one.
If the commission wanted an expert to back them up, they could have worked to obtain such input at any time prior to the hearing. Kane Levy, the commissioner with the greatest willingness to substitute her convictions for evidence, asked if the commission could procure an expert opinion of its own — an unintentionally desperate and painful admission that they didn’t do their homework. Greenbaum adamantly questioned why he couldn’t demand that the applicants submit a design for the house they would build post-demolition. He did so repeatedly — even after he was told that such a requirement was not part of the established application process and that it would be unreasonable to evaluate the application based on its absence.
A willingness and ability to pass judgment based on whatever criteria the commissioners happen to prefer instead of the data available to them and a crisp set of predefined standards should be unacceptable. If the commission intends to be taken seriously and for its determinations to withstand subsequent review, the entire enterprise should be revisited from the ground up — starting with its membership.
In the meantime, our friends and neighbors have, for years now, paid property taxes on a home they can’t safely live in, rent for the one in which they do and mounting legal fees — all while enduring six moves. Why? So the Historic Preservation Commission can preserve the integrity of an asbestos infested home that they themselves would not feel safe living in.
Presumably, the Montclair Historic Preservation Commission was nobly established to head off the reckless demolition of the antique homes in our beautiful town and to maintain its aesthetic character, not to mandate that citizens burn piles of money while we struggle to preserve old houses at any cost. If the commission wants to fund indeterminate construction expeditions, capital should be raised to support the cause. The commission should not be allowed to place that burden on the emotional well-being and wallets of well-intentioned neighbors who simply want to live in their own home in a town they love.
As this case and others like it wind their way through their various administrative gauntlets, let’s endeavor to show our neighbors at least the same respect we show our homes.
Max Goldman is a Montclair resident and a neighbor of the home at 109 Union Street, which the Montclair Historic Commission has declined to allow to be demolished.
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