Stories of two-week delays for inspection appointments and interminable waits for permits in Montclair have circulated since Robert McLoughlin was dismissed as the township’s construction official in May. For Kim Cheung, owner of Merit Fine Wines and Liquors on Bloomfield Avenue, it’s been even worse.
Cheung’s plan to move his store into the old Zaentz Hardware space, which involved the installation of new shelves, coolers, ceiling fans and air conditioning, has been stalled by months. He initially tried to secure electrical and plumbing permits this past summer, but the disarray caused numerous delays.
Cheung and his contractor were told by the construction office in August that they needed to submit architectural drawings for the remodeling, even though such plans typically are only required for structural alterations. “Merit wasn’t doing structural alterations,” Cheung told Baristanet. “But they said they needed drawings anyway. So we got the drawings done and submitted them, and the construction office said we should get our permits in two weeks.”
By the middle of September, though, Merit had not received any permits, owing to the void created by McLoughlin’s departure and a pending interlocal agreement to share construction code services with Glen Ridge. The apparent lack of a construction official to sign off on a permit annoyed Cheung, who couldn’t get any answers from the construction office.
“I was a little upset because they could have told me about the situation from day one, and I could have filed in June instead of waiting until August, when my construction loan was fully funded. And now I am dipping into the construction reserve to pay rent.” he said. “The bigger problem is, now I have the two busiest months coming. I only had that window of September 6th to 20th to move before my busy season begins; at this point I don’t think we will be able to move until after New Year’s Day.”
Not every business owner has had as bad an experience as Cheung. Elliot Bloom, franchisee and owner/operator of the Red Mango frozen yogurt shop on Church Street, found the Montclair construction office to be quite accommodating. Bloom said the problems in expanding his business, which opened in March 2010, were largely self-inflicted. He filed an incomplete application while failing to include sealed plans for his expansion, and the application was sent in just prior to the Independence Day holiday this past summer, slowing the process even further.
“I know they’ve had issues, but we were actually quite pleased with the building department,” Bloom said. “Business people in the community have to work within the timelines, things have to be done correctly – and I think it all worked out well.”
Red Mango held its grand re-opening at the end of October.
Lea Moon of the True North Osteria restaurant is another business owner who’s had some frustration with the construction permit process. “We weren’t given information about what the delay was,” she said. “I would have liked to know the time frame ahead of time.”
Kim Cheung was finally able to get work started on his future location for Merit Wines and Liquors on October 24, after all of the permits were completed. But he has still seen a significant change over the years in how Montclair handles the building permit issue when it comes to local businesses.
“It used to be that Montclair was a town that embraced entrepreneurship and diversity,” he said. “When my father opened the Golden River Chinese restaurant [on Bloomfield Avenue], he applied for a permit and got it in one day. Nowadays I hear frustrations and complaints from many building owners and contractors who frequent my business about officials who place vanity and self-righteousness ahead of public service.”
He also has concerns with the building department having a construction official from Glen Ridge – a town much smaller than Montclair – handle Montclair’s construction code duties along with its own. The shared-services agreement with Glen Ridge, in which Montclair pays $75,000 to share a construction officer and pays $26,000 for its part-time electrical inspector, was approved by Montclair in August and by Glen Ridge in September. The deal is expected to save 33 percent of McLoughlin’s $100,000 annual salary plus the combined benefits and pension he would have been owed had his contract been renewed.
“The lighter workload from Glen Ridge might allow the shared official to do everything in Montclair at a reasonable pace,” Cheung says. But he thinks Montclair still could have hired a construction code officer for less than McLoughlin’s $100,000 annual salary.
“You have licensed architects begging for jobs at $60,000 [a year],” he said. “I can’t believe that we are only saving $33,000. We can bid the job out and get potential candidates for much less. With the rate of unemployment, I can’t believe we can’t find somebody.”
’No one at the Montclair construction office was available for comment.