Opposition from neighbors sidetracked an application at Monday’s Planning Board meeting to subdivide a 1.7-acre property into three lots in the residential neighborhood of Madison Avenue.
The application was made by the property’s owners, Luther Flurry and Jarmila Packard, who currently live in a house situated behind a former nursing home located at the front of the property.
Prior to the hearing of the application, Chairman John Wynn recused himself due to his home’s proximity to the property, and the proceedings were chaired by Vice Chairman Jason DeSalvo.
The couple’s attorney, David Owen, explained that the property, located at 14-16 Madison Avenue, is the largest property within the block. The front building, he stated, was originally a 2-1/2 story one-family home that had been converted into a nursing home in 1945, when the Board of Adjustment approved that use of the property. In the mid-1990s, the nursing home closed and has been left vacant ever since. Flurry and Packard bought the property in 2002 and eventually applied to the Zoning Board of Adjustment to convert the nursing home back to a one-family house, while living in the existing smaller building behind the larger structure. However, he said, they were unable to complete renovations on the former nursing home and now wish to subdivide the property into three lots.
Owen called Planner Peter Steck to testify further about the details of the application. Steck explained the owners wish to subdivide the existing large lot into three separate lots, with two lots fronting onto Madison Avenue, with the third lot containing the existing smaller home in the back. The former nursing home would be demolished and replaced with two single-family houses. He said the former nursing home had not been used as a single-family home since 1945 and it was in a deteriorated condition, with inside finishes removed. It is located on a rise in the topography, and a driveway is located to the right of the property, leading to the owners’ home in the back.
He also said at one time the neighborhood, now zoned as one-family residential (R1), had once been a multi-family zone.
Steck explained that because the existing lot currently has 135 feet of frontage, the two new lots facing Madison Avenue would each be 67.5 feet, 10% short of the 75-foot width required in the R1 zone. Rather than adding a driveway to each house, he said the plan proposes to have one driveway that serves all three lots, accessed via an easement, in order to keep the number of curb cuts to a minimum. He said the house in the rear of the former nursing home, where the owners now live, was formerly used as a combination office and dwelling for the nursing home owners.
The planner also discussed other properties on the block, including the new homes built when another defunct mansion-turned-nursing home adjacent to the Flurry property, the Bierman Home for the Aged, was demolished five years ago. Developer Lawrence Kramer eventually built four houses on that property.
Steck pointed out the Kramer properties were all built at the same time, with clear designs, and three out of the four homes have two-car garages in the front. He said the owners of 14-16 Madison plan to build houses that blend into the neighborhood, and to put garages in the back of the new homes and to keep the setbacks consistent with the adjacent houses.
Steck went into a lot of detail regarding density requirements from the last Master Plan (from 1987) that specifically addressed residential areas of the town, including what would be allowed by right if creating a new street. Vice Chairman DeSalvo interrupted to ask why the planner was “going down that road” when they are not proposing a new street. Steck explained he wanted to show that the capability of the property was for three lots, based on those density requirements of 3.1-6.6 dwelling units per acre.
Steck said they needed relief on several C variances in order to carry out the proposed plan, including a variance for the lot widths, one to allow a shared driveway, and one to allow walls that exceed the height limit. He explained it would take a lot of money to restore the main building to its former use as a single family home, as it is “in disrepair,” and is missing key functional aspects, such as copper pipe, which was stolen from the house. He also pointed out that the town had never designated the building as historic, so there was no mechanism in place to protect it from demolition.
He stated that the public benefits outweigh the detriments, as the demolition of the former nursing home would remove a condition of blight in the neighborhood, and that by putting two one-family homes on the site in its place, it would “solidify the future of the neighborhood as an R1 zone.” He said the plan was not detrimental as the new single-family homes would preserve the character of the neighborhood.
The public was invited to ask Steck any questions about his testimony. Frank Davis, a resident of nearby Lincoln Street, questioned whether the shared driveway would be adequate access for emergency vehicles and fire apparatus. Township Planner Janice Talley stated the application had been submitted to the Fire Department but they had received no comments. Steck stated the access was comparable to the existing situation on the property.
Davis also questioned whether the plan could be modified to have one house in the front, with two in the back. Steck said that there are always alternatives, but that he was only addressing the application that was before the Board.
Board member Martin Schwartz suggested the possibility of restoring the existing house and converting it to a two-family house, but Steck stated that would require a D variance, which is “a further offense” to the current R1 zoning.
Another resident stated the neighborhood had once been a wealthy neighborhood, and in his research he had found no evidence of it ever having been a multi-family zone. However, Steck countered that in the 1945 resolution granting permission for the home to be converted into a nursing home, it stated the property was in an R3 garden group zone.
Property owner Luther Flurry testified next. He stated they had moved to 14 Madison Avenue in 2000, and when they learned the nursing home property was for sale, they decided to purchase it. “Everyone said we were crazy,” he said. There were various obstacles to the purchase, and the closing was frozen for two years before they were able to finalize the sale. Finally, in April 2006, the Zoning Board of Adjustment gave permission for the former nursing home building to be converted from 26 units back to a single-family house and to convert the smaller building (variously referred to as a carriage house or barn) in the back from office space to single family use. He stated the carriage house is under 2000 square feet, while the large building is about 6000 square feet.
Their original dream was to restore the main house and live in it along with extended family. However, as renovations took place, they met “more surprises” in terms of unstable additions and other issues that had to be addressed, he said. In the meantime, they renovated the rear house and lived there. Then in 2008 when the recession hit, Flurry said, they were unable to afford further renovations to the main building.
In the meantime, code enforcement violations piled up. He explained Montclair has a vacant property ordinance that has forced him to move forward with demolishing the main building and he said that is why he was bringing the application to the Board. He said he had put it off as long as possible because he was resistant to the fact the “the dream is dead.”
Flurry said the intent was to build two new homes in place of the former nursing home that would match the scale and level of detail of the Kramer properties.
His neighbors then took the microphone to ask questions. Bill Ross, of 8 Madison Avenue, questioned whether he could just sell the property. He asked Flurry what he paid for it and Flurry said that he had paid $515k, and that in the last year he had received an offer of under $400k.
Flurry said he had discussed his plans with neighbors at a picnic over the summer and had sent the plans to many of them via email once they were available. He said the economics of the project is not “first and foremost” to him, as he wants to preserve the integrity of the neighborhood.
Vice Chairman DeSalvo expressed sympathy for Flurry’s situation, but said that “What exists today isn’t good for anyone.” He emphasized that the Board’s role is to come together to a solution “that is good land use, that is good for you, and for the neighborhood.”
Frank Davis spoke again, agreeing that the neighbors weren’t looking to “kill this deal,” and just had to all work together.
Board member Martin Schwartz reiterated his suggestion of converting the main house into a two-family home, keeping the facade. He suggested the applicant could come to the Development Review Committee, which includes members from both the Planning and Zoning Boards, and discuss the idea with them. “We’re here to find solutions, not just go by rote,” he said. DeSalvo, however, warned Flurry that the Planning Board would have “zero control” over that process, and Flurry would need to do due diligence and “a lot of homework” before going to the Committee.
Mark Janifer, who owns the home directly across from Flurry’s property, asked whether Flurry couldn’t just sell the house to someone who would build a single family home on the property. He then asked what would stop other neighbors with homes on large properties from subdividing and selling off their properties, if the Board approves Flurry’s application. Flurry answered, “You have a functioning house, I don’t.”
Another neighbor asked if he couldn’t just demolish the house “so we don’t have to look at it anymore,” and Flurry explained the main house and the home he is living in behind it share utilities and he wasn’t sure that could be accomplished.
Diane Stewart Perkins, a Draper Terrace resident, stated she had spoken with Flurry at length at the summer picnic and he had never mentioned any plan to demolish the house and subdivide the property. She also questioned why he had done nothing to maintain the property.
Several others also stated they had not known about the plan until the email went out with the plans attached.
Craig Levine pointed out that Flurry had been opposed to several aspects of the originally proposed Kramer development adjacent to his property, and questioned whether he would be open to the possibility of one single family home or a two-family in one structure in place of the former nursing home. Flurry said he was open to discussing it with the neighbors.
Another neighbor asked what would happen to the variance that allows two single family dwellings on one lot, if the existing nursing home building were taken down. Janice Talley responded that she believes the variance would then “go away.” The existing home where the owners live would become the principal dwelling, with a 120-foot setback, she said.
After the various comments by the neighbors, Flurry’s attorney stated, “It is obvious there are a lot of questions,” and said they would try to come up with a solution that works. He said they would work with the neighbors and requested an adjournment to carry the application to another date. Vice Chairman DeSalvo agreed, telling the applicant to approach it with “a sense of community,” pointing out it was better for him to work with the neighbors to come up with a “win-win” solution, rather than the Board having to “divide the baby in half.”
The application will be continued on Monday, December 5, 2016.