The Montclair Planning Board rejected a revised plan for the redevelopment of the former Warner Communications property on Lorraine Avenue on Monday evening.
A scaled-back development plan for the property had been approved in April of 2016 after an earlier application submitted by developer Michael Pavel met opposition due to the size of the building.
However, in December, Pavel submitted an amended application for the site, which proposed enlarging the building by adding over 3000 square feet to the second floor space, while parking spaces would remain unchanged.
After opposition from the public and members of the Historic Preservation Commission, the application was adjourned to allow a proper review by the HPC prior to the next hearing on February 6, 2017.
A revised version of the application met additional resistance from the Board and the residents at the February meeting, and the hearing was ultimately continued to the March 13 meeting.
At Monday’s meeting, Attorney Neal Zimmerman first introduced engineer Gerard Gesario, who stated that the site plan remains unchanged from the original approved application, as all of the added space is on the second floor. He also discussed the property’s lighting, which he said was designed to provide zero light at the property line, and the HVAC system on the roof. That equipment, he said, would be screened, and trees and shrubs would hide the view from nearby homes. Gesario said the type of equipment was standard for a building of this size, and is an approved size for the zone. In regard to the noise generated by the system, he stated it would comply with the township’s general noise ordinance.
Zimmerman next brought planner Peter Steck to testify. Steck stated he had reviewed the application to affirm that no new variances had been created, and to examine whether a waiver was needed from the historic preservation design standard in the zoning ordinance.
Steck said that no new variances were needed, as the modified plan complied with the prior approval.
He went on to discuss the provision in the zoning ordinance related to historic preservation standards, which states, “The size of a building mass in relation to open spaces, window and door openings, porches and balconies shall be visually compatible with adjacent buildings and places.”
Steck noted that since the title of that section is “design criteria,” normally that refers to something that’s not a zoning standard; it refers to a design waiver.
He said that a design waiver is not triggered, as the design standard is too vague, and that the building does comply with the bulk requirements in the zoning ordinance, which he said should take precedence since they are more specific.
He also questioned the standard that it “be compatible with adjacent places,” asking, “Who is the arbiter of this?” Steck pointed out that the building is adjacent to the railroad, a gas station, and the back of King’s supermarket, representing a wide variety of uses. “My conclusion is, this application as amended remains a variance free application.”
Chairman Wynn questioned his conclusion. “What if my definition, given this is the Upper Montclair business district, is that it should be compatible with that?” He pointed out that other buildings in the business district with clear lines of sight could be considered adjacent. “Let’s just say that I’m right and those are adjacent. Are you saying the building wouldn’t have to be compatible with those buildings also?”
Steck conceded it would, but disagreed on the definition of “adjacent.” “I think there is certainly a preference to buildings that abut the subject property. I think you are beyond the English language if you look at buildings across the street.”
Members of the public also questioned Steck.
Kathleen Bennett, Chair of the Historic Preservation Commission, spoke about the HPC guidelines regarding rear additions, which she said are meant to be smaller and simpler in design than the historic building. “We’re talking about a historic addition that triples the size of the building,” she said.
The next speaker, Braemore Road resident Jennifer Haughton, questioned the size and design of the building compared to the design agreed to last April. “Maybe you can explain to us how an office building that looks as if it belongs on Route 46 will blend with Williams Sonoma?” she asked.
Another resident said, “This is an opportunity to kind of stop the flow of getting away from the history and the quaintness of Upper Montclair,” asking what would stop the next developer from building a similar building. “We all came together and agreed on a building that fit the ambiance of our neighborhood; and then it was changed, the rug was pulled out from under our feet, and this structure will set a dangerous precedent.”
Other residents expressed concern with increased traffic and danger to pedestrians.
Attorney Neal Zimmerman thanked the Board for their patience during the “contentious” application. He summed up the application by stating that the applicant and his architect had “carefully prepared plans that comply with the zoning ordinance.” In addressing concerns about increased traffic, he noted that when the township zoned this particular density, “they assumed sufficient traffic in the road situation, so that is something the Board cannot base its decision on.” He also pointed out that the applicant had complied with seven of 10 recommendations made by the Historic Preservation Commission, and stated they would be willing to work with the Board’s review committee to discuss mitigation to the bulk, noise attenuation and HVAC screening. He asked the Board to approve the application with those conditions, as well as to comply with the three additional HPC recommendations that had not been addressed.
Vice Chair Jason DeSalvo responded, “This was contentious because this is the third time you’ve come before us. The second time you came back with an application that was universally approved by the neighbors. Then you want to slide one in that’s bigger … You keep ignoring what the HPC said about it being out of context with the Historic District in terms of size and scale. We have to determine which version we agree is correct. I would like the power of the HPC to prevail. There’s something more at stake here than just the application. It’s complicated.”
Board member Tony Inuale disagreed. He said the application complied with the zoning ordinance and that he was in favor of it.
Martin Schwartz said the design was not in compliance with the goals and provisions of the Master Plan regarding historic preservation.
Robin Schlager said she couldn’t support the application. “When we talk about the surrounding areas, this building is in essence in people’s backyards. These are people who have lived here since 1976,” she said.
Chairman Wynn said he was “not a fan” of the design or the bulk. He continued, “But I can’t ignore the fact that the applicant’s counsel has made some valid legal arguments with respect to the law and the way that it applies. And with respect to the envelope of the building, I think he’s right that as a piece of private property of a certain size, the building envelope is permitted under current zoning.” He said there may be ways to mitigate the appearance and size of the building with changes to the design and features, and screening it will landscaping. He said he was making the motion to accept the application “reluctantly.”
In a roll call vote, the application was rejected 5-4, with DeSalvo, Schwartz, Schlaeger, Willis and Rooney voting against the plan.
Madison Avenue Subdivision
The second application was also continued from previous meetings. Vice Chairman DeSalvo chaired this portion of the meeting as Chairman Wynn recused himself due to living in proximity to the property.
Luther Flurry, owner of 14-16 Madison Avenue, had previously submitted an application to subdivide his property into three lots, tearing down the existing large home (formerly used as a nursing home) and replacing it with two new single-family houses, leaving an existing smaller dwelling behind them. This plan had been roundly criticized by neighbors and ultimately the applicant’s attorney requested an adjournment to allow them to find a solution that the neighbors would accept.
The revised application presented on Monday proposed a major change from the previous plan.
Instead of demolishing the former nursing home, the building would be restored to its original single family status and preserved. The property would be subdivided into two lots, with the smaller building behind the former nursing home on its own separate lot.
Attorney David Owen stated that the new project brings the property into conformance with the zoning ordinance that requires only one principal building per lot. He said it also retains both existing existing houses and promotes preservation, and that there would be o new curb cuts, no tree removal, and no garages facing the street.
Planner Peter Steck cited the need for a number of variances related to coverage and lot widths based on the irregular shape of the lot. He testified that in his opinion, the benefits of the project outweigh any detriments. He said the plan preserves the original house and returns it to an occupied use as a single family home, while making no visual difference to the site.
Architect Scot Surbeck presented elevations showing the renovations planned for the main building. He said that the original structure had stucco with mock Tudor features on the top level, while the lower portion of the building was clad in siding. He said that lap siding would be extended to the upper portion of the house, and would be made of Hardie board, a fiber composite material. In addition, the windows would be replaced with vinyl windows and railings would be made of TimberTeck, in order to be low-maintenance and less costly.
A neighbor questioned whether the macadam driveway at the left of the house would cause runoff into his yard.
The Board raised concerns about the timing of the work that would be done. The applicant had previously been cited for code violations due to the deteriorated condition of the main house.
The applicant’s attorney estimated, based on the expected timing of permits and other factors, that exterior work could begin in late July and be completed by the end of September. He said cleaning up the overgrowth of brush on the property could be completed by the end of May.
Planning Director Janice Malley stated that if work was not done in a timely manner, the property would be considered vacant and “significant payments” would become due.
The Board approved the application unanimously, with the condition that the applicant mitigate any drainage problems associated with the driveway if they became necessary.
Two other applications that had been on the agenda for March 13 were carried to the April 3, 2017 meeting at the applicants’ request.