Montclair Zoning Board of Adjustment Approves Conversion of Doctor’s Office to 3-Unit Condo

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Architect Paul Sionas presents plans; applicant Henry Liedtka and attorney Alan Trembulak to his left.

The Montclair Zoning Board approved an application to convert an existing combination office/residential building to three condominium units at 21 Plymouth Street on April 11.

The building, which is in an R1 residential zone, was originally a single family home built in 1910. However, it had been used for many years as a doctor’s office with two apartments above.

The applicant, Henry Liedtka, owner of Sustainable Sanctuary Homes, wishes to restore the building’s appearance to more closely resemble the original look of the house, as well as make the house look like a single-family home, by decreasing the width of the driveay and enhancing the landscaping in the parking lot.

View of 21 Plymouth Street. Source:
http://www.sustainablesanctuaryhomes.com/21-plymouth-street-montclair-nj

Alan Trembulak, attorney for the applicant, pointed out to the board that they had recently approved a similar application by the same developer at 41 Plymouth Street, which was also a former doctor’s office that had been converted to a two-family home, which Sustainable Sanctuary proposed reconfiguring into two condominium units.

He also said there had been a prior application regarding the property at 21 Plymouth last year under a previous owner. That application had originally requested approval for eight units on the site, and then had been amended to request six, which was denied by the Board. He stated his client had since purchased the property and only wants to convert the building to three units in an R1 zone.

Henry Leidtka explained that they want to convert the building to three residential condominium units:  Two with three bedrooms and one with four bedrooms. He said the house is “pretty much a mess” inside and out so the interior would be gutted to create more modern open layouts. Outside, he plans to strip aluminum siding and try to recreate what the building looked like in the early 1900s.

He stated the renovation will stay within the existing footprint of the house. He said they did not consider turning it back to a single-family home, as the building comprises 6,500 square feet and there is no market for that kind of product.

He said he had spoken to the neighbors about the proposed renovation of both 21 and 41 Plymouth Street, and incorporated their input as to what they would like to see done at the site. 

Vice Chair Joseph Fleischer pointed out the application called for an extension of the front porch and the addition of a three-car garage. Board member Susan Baggs asked the applicant to explain the need for enclosed parking.

“I think it’s an amenity people will want for purchasing those kinds of units,” he replied. He said each unit would get one garage space and one outside space.

Architect/planner Paul Sionis presented the plans for the site with a PowerPoint presentation. He showed the site plan, explaining the building was located in an R1 zone, adjoining an R4 zone and, at the eastern side of Plymouth Street, an OR4 zone.

The survey map shows the existing building, which is a 2-½ story aluminum-sided wood frame building, originally constructed in 1910. He said the front porch was enclosed in 1977 and the building expanded in 1981.

Sionis said the proposed plan adds 2.5 feet to the front porch to make it look better visually, which only increases coverage by 0.1%.

Because of the aluminum siding and other changes over the years, the original details of the building have been lost. He plans to get clues from the original historic photo of the house, with the goal of making it a lot more attractive and more in keeping of its historic appearance. They are proposing all new windows, with two-over-two lights and transoms on the first floor. For the roof deck, a metal railing is proposed that looks in keeping with that era. There will be new siding, new trimwork, and three private exterior entries.

Elevations for proposed renovation of 21 Plymouth Street. Source: http://www.sustainablesanctuaryhomes.com/21-plymouth-street-montclair-nj

In order to reorganize and improve the parking area, the entrance drive will be narrowed to twelve feet wide, which will give it a more residential apperance. The paving will be cut back along the western property line next to the adjoining single family house, still allowing for 21-foot backup space behind parked cars. There are 11-foot high evergreens screening the view of the parking lot on the neighbor’s side of the property line.

Parking will be broken up so that there will be four spaces divided by a planted peninsula with a maple tree and shrubs. Evergreens will screen the view of the parking spaces from Plymouth Street. Parking spaces will be 9 by 17 feet, which will accommodate compact cars. The required number of parking spaces for the proposed use would be 6.3 and they will be providing seven.

The garage would be built at the back of the property, in complementary architecture to that of the house.

New landscaping will be planted along the front of the building, as well as around the north and east sides of the property. There will be shade trees and shrubs in the front, with cherry, crepe myrtle and evergreens on the north and east to provide interest and screening from adjacent properties. 

The lower level, which used to be the medical office, will be the lower level of Unit B, a two-story apartment. The lower floor will have no bedrooms, just a family/activity room and study. They are including an egress window from the study for safety purposes in case of fire. In addition, the entire building will be sprinklered.

The remainder of the lower level will house a laundry area, three separate rooms for tenant storge, and space for bicycles and additional storage. Stairs will lead to the first floor.

On the first floor, Unit B will include three bedrooms and 3-1/2 baths in the back of the building with a dedicated entrance. The front of the first floor will be taken up by Unit A, which will include three bedrooms and two baths.

Unit C will have four bedrooms, three baths, a private roof deck on the third floor, and private elevator access. 

The applicant had proposed putting a wooden shed in the back of the property to house garbage and recycling cans for the residents. However, Vice Chair Joseph Fleischer raised concerns that residents would have to cart their garbage all the way to the back of the property and then have to go back there to retrieve it and bring it all the way up to the curb for pickup.

He suggested it be moved to a more practical location on the side of the house. He was also concerned with the shed increasing impervious surface and suggested that the location be left open as part of the green space in the back yard.

He also questioned the location of the entrance to Unit C, which is in the back of the building and requires the tenant to walk between the building and the garage to reach the entrance. In addition, he suggested the use of pervious surfaces for the driveway to limit runoff, which the applicant said they would consider.

The board discussed handicapped accessibility, which is not required by ADA regulations, but would be desirable to make the property available to all. There are no handicapped spaces, but Unit C does have an elevator to provide access to people with disabilities.

Other issues raised by the board included a concern that the cars in the parking lot might overhang the walkway along the side of the house, and the positioning of the air conditioning units along the other side of the building.

Two neighbors spoke in favor of the application during the public comment period, praising the developer for listening to their concerns and for the compatibility of the final plans with the neighborhood. One said, “I’m all for it,” adding the garage makes the building look even more residential than it did without a garage.

All members of the board spoke favorably of the application, and voted unanimously to approve it, with several conditions. Chairman William Harrison summed up the conditions, which included: Move the ground level air conditioning unit toward the rear yard and screen the air conditioner unit on the roof; adhere to the conditions provided in the engineering memo; install wheel stops for cars in the parking area so as not to overhang the walk; comply with the Affordable Housing Act, and move trash enclosure closer to the street.

Two shorter residential applications were heard during the first half of the meeting.

114 Upper Mountain Avenue

The first was an application by Dr. and Mrs. Charbel Chalfoun to build a carport adjacent to their three-family garage in back of their home. The carport would encroach on the side-yard setback and also would require a height variance. Its footprint would be 17 by 17 feet and part of it would be built into a recently installed retaining wall at the rear of the yard. An additional door would also be installed on the outside of the garage to allow easier access to a mechanical room (currently accessed from within the garage) that supplies heat and hot water to a studio apartment above the garage.

Their architect, George A. Held, explained the height variance was proposed in order to help the new structure blend with the roof line of the existing garage. Mrs. Chalfoun explained she had to let her children out of the car before going into the garage as the stalls in the garage were narrow, and wanted the carport to make it easier to put her car under a covering during bad weather and allow the children to get out more easily. She also explained that backing out of the garage and making a K-turn is difficult.

Vice Chair Fleischer said there was “far too much intrusion into the side yard” and he would not vote for it in its current configuration. He later stated that the owners had not shown any reason they need a 17-foot wide carport when 12 would be more than enough.

Susan Baggs said, “I’m not in favor of granting the side yard variance because… I agree with some of the issues pointed out by Mr. Fleischer that the installation of a new door to the mechanical room is causing the need to make the addition wider than it needs to be. I think once we would approve the incursion into the side yard with a roof and four posts, it would be too easy for the applicant to come in and enclose that portion and make it a fully enclosed building. The height variance to extend the carport to make the roof in line with the existing ridge line, I support that. If they create a carport that falls within the side yard setback I’d be in favor of granting the variance for height.”

Ultimately all board members agreed that while the roof height variance was acceptable, the side yard encroachment was not. They voted to approve the height variance, but not the proposed side-yard variance.

338 Highland Avenue

Applicants Seth and Claudia Riegelhaupt and their landscape architects, Van Hoffman Landscape Architecture, requested the board approve an application to move an existing garage from the back of their home to another location on the western side of their property to accommodate access to a new patio space. Because their house is on a “through lot,” both the front and back of their yard are considered to be front yards, which causes a hardship for them in terms of the placement of the garage.

The couple had hired the Hoffmans to design a patio and outdoor space, but due to the property’s limitations they asked the homeowners if they would consider moving the garage. Without that change, they have to move their cars past the proposed patio and grill area in order to access the garage.

Vice Chair Fleischer pointed out that the garage is technically already in the “front yard” where it is located now.

The proposed location would be to put the garage inserted into the hill, where their neighbor actually has a garage in the same location on his property.

Fleischer noted the proposed garage will have a second floor with dormers, and asked if they were goingt to provide heat or water to that floor, or only electricity?  

The applicant responded it would only be electricity and that the additional height was there to allow the dormers to be added so the look of the garage would better complement that of the house.

Given Edgecliff Road, behind the property, has a 32-foot elevation compared to Highland Avenue, the neighbors behind the property would not see much of the top of the structure from their yard, as the peak would be lower than street level.

The board members agreed that the proposal was justified given the hardship the owners had in using their property due to it being a through lot.

They voted unanimously to approve the application with the conditions that they adhere to the Steep Slope ordinance (working with township engineer Watkinson) and that the only utility for the second floor of the garage will be electricity.

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