The former home of African American sports hero Aubrey Lewis in the South End of Montclair was razed in 2018, over the objections of many residents. The Montclair Historic Preservation Commission was given authority in 2019 to approve or deny demolitions of certain historic properties, and is hoping to firm up those rules. (DEBORAH ANN TRIPOLDI/FILE PHOTO)

By DARREN TOBIA and LOUIS C. HOCHMAN
news@montclairlocal.news

Montclair’s Historic Preservation Commission is aiming to firm up the township’s demolition ordinance, setting what members hope will be clearer rules that better prepare them to decide whether and when a historic building should be razed.

Among the rules being considered: A required notice to neighbors when a property demolition is being requested, and a preliminary look at what might replace a building after it has been knocked down.

The discussions follow a lengthy dispute over whether the owners should be allowed to demolish a Union Street home that became riddled with asbestos during a 2019 renovation project.

Homeowners Steven and Leah Meranus contended the house in the First Residential Historic District had become unlivable, that remediating the house wasn’t feasible and that they couldn’t in good conscience sell it to someone else. 

But last year, the commission shot down their request to raze it in a split vote (the second time the commission reviewed the matter, because of a concern Montclair’s ordinance wasn’t clear about a time frame for appealing a 2020 rejection). 

Some members said they still thought remediation was possible, or that rules intended to hold onto historic properties shouldn’t be set aside because of problems an owner’s contractor introduced.

When the Meranuses appealed the commission’s most recent ruling in 2021, the township’s Zoning Board once again turned them down, with a 5-2 vote in December.

Several of the issues the commission hopes to explore in an update to the demolition ordinance were, at least in part, prompted by concerns that came up during the Union Street application hearings.

The commission will pick up its discussion on a revised ordinance today, Jan. 13, as it starts a 2022 schedule under a revised lineup, after Mayor Sean Spiller declined to return members David Greenbaum and Caroline Kane Levy to their seats. 

Taking their place and filling previously vacant seats are Michael Graham (filling a slot for a Planning Board member), Jason Grinkin, Gerald Sweeney and first alternate Elizabeth Ruebman. Commission Chairwoman Kathleen Bennett, Vice Chairman Jason Hyndman and members Stephen Rooney and John Reimnitz are all returning. A second alternate position remains unfilled. 

The vote over the Union Street home, built in 1905, had seen significant debate. Rich McMahon, the owners’ attorney, wrote in one letter to Montclair Local that “curiously, three members clearly understood how devastating this has been and how asbestos-ridden and unsafe this house is. The other three demonstrated a lack of empathy or basic understanding of the situation and seemed to grope for rationales to deny my clients and prolong their ordeal.” Because the matter came down to a tied 3-3 vote, the demolition was denied. 

Bennett, at a commission meeting in December, said she thanked the Zoning Board “for upholding the integrity of the [demolition] ordinance and also of the HPC decision.” She called it a “trial by fire” for the ordinance, first put in place in 2019 after several high-profile clashes between homeowners and preservation-minded residents over demolitions. 

One dispute in 2019 involved tearing down two 19th-century homes on neighboring lots — one on Lloyd Road, another on Undercliff Road — for a proposed eight-bedroom mansion that was never constructed, prompting a moratorium on demolitions until the law was put in place. 

The demolition ordinance gives the commission power to review applications to knock down buildings in designated historic areas, or that have been deemed historic or potentially historic in Montclair’s master plan. The commission considers an applicant’s arguments about whether rehabilitation of a building is feasible, and whether they’ve tried to sell a property before looking to tear it down. 

Last year, the commission allowed the demolition of a Wheeler Street home — the first it OK’d since the law went into effect. 

At the December meeting, members asked township professionals to explore several revisions to the ordinance. Any updates would have to be approved by the Township Council.

Bennett suggested a required notification to neighbors within 200 feet of a proposed demolition — which Township Planner Janice Talley said can “certainly be done.” Another suggestion, to require a sign on a property coming up for review, might not be permitted under rules that set noticing requirements under the Municipal Land Use Law, Talley said. 

Talley also suggested that applicants be made to outline costs of remediating a property when they first apply. Several commission members had asked about specific costs to rehabilitate the Union Street home, and said they weren’t satisfied by answers from professionals who said it wouldn’t be plausible to do, but didn’t cite dollar amounts.

“Why don’t we say you [the applicant] have to provide it up front, and if you don’t provide it, it doesn’t even get to you guys [on the commission] until you get there?” Talley said.

Reimnitz had suggested revising the escrow fees structure used to pay for the commission’s own experts — though paying for a structural engineer, as he suggested would be useful, could take the required fees from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand, Talley noted. Reimnitz had said he was wary of taking an applicant’s professional’s word for an assessment of a property.

 “I don’t believe any of these structures cannot be safe, so I need to be convinced in another way,” he said. 

Rooney additionally asked for an assurance in the law that the commission’s professionals could access a property to evaluate it. 

And multiple members said they’d like to have a sense of what might replace a torn-down building — and would like a better sense of whether they’d have any power to hold an applicant to such plans, when it comes time for a building permit. 

“If an application came to us … and they said, ‘We need to tear this down, but we’re going to build it back exactly how it was,’ OK, well, does that affect the way we look at it?” Reimnitz said. “It’s probably a little different than if they were to say we want to tear this down and build a six-story building. We might have a different attitude about it.”

The discussion is also happening alongside one on a new Historic Design Guidelines document — a set of recommendations meant to preserve the character of historic resources throughout the township. The guidelines are meant as a resource for applicants planning work that will eventually come before the commission.

The commission is scheduled to vote on the new guidelines at its meeting tonight.

The proposed 57-page document, produced over four months in collaboration with architect Stephen Tilley, is considerably shorter than the 182-page 2016 version it would replace. It also includes flowcharts outlining the development process, and a glossary of terms that relate to development and rehabilitation of buildings. 

Talley told Montclair Local the new version wasn’t prompted by recent events such as the Union Street proposal.

Photographs of local landmarks in the guidelines document illustrate the succession of historical periods, beginning with the late 18th-century federal style, like the Israel Crane house. The timeline continues through the arrival of Stick-style properties epitomized by the Henry Fenn home on North Mountain Avenue, and moves on to Italianate styles like the Van Reyper-Bond house at Montclair State University.

Bennett said at the December meeting that the commission’s consultants will also be preparing a pamphlet version that will be available in locations including real estate offices and hardware stores. 

KEEP LOCAL JOURNALISM ALIVE: MontclairLocal.news is free, but it takes consistent financial support from a community that believes local journalism matters to make it and our weekly print paper possible. Your sustaining contribution of $10 per month (or more) makes you a member, and gets you our print edition. Visit MontclairLocal.news/donations for details and to become a member today.