Montclair Council Considers Revising “Antiquated Zoning Laws”

The Montclair Township Council conference meeting on June 12 turned into a Planning Board meeting once the pending ordinances and resolutions had been passed, as Planning Director Janice Talley briefed the council on an ordinance up for consideration at the June 26 regular meeting that would making sweeping changes to the zoning and land use regulations already on the books.

Montclair Planning Director Janice Talley at the Montclair Township Council’s June 12 meeting

Talley said Montclair’s zoning laws were antiquated, and she said it was necessary to revise them per the township’s master plan.  Her proposal, as outlined by the new ordinance, was to consolidate the five separate chapters of Montclair’s ordinances pertaining to land use – covering land use procedures, site plan review, storm water control, land subdivision, and zooming – into one comprehensive set of ordinances, Chapter 347: Zoning and Land Use Regulations.  She mainly centered on five proposed commercial designations for Montclair Center.  Zone C-1 would be a collection of “activity nodes” along Bloomfield Avenue and Church Street where the most active use would be expected (the MC Hotel, to be completed in January 2019, and the Valley & Bloom complex, is one such “node”), while Zone C-2 would mainly comprise the Montclair Center business district along Bloomfield Avenue.  Zone C-3 would feature “edge” commercial blocks just outside the Bloomfield Avenue corridor, Zone C-4 would be commercial l anchors for “village” neighborhoods, and a fifth commercial zone – C-5, mostly pertaining to the Hackensack UMC/ Mountainside campus – would be a “transitional area” buffering the main commercial zones from the residential areas.

Talley’s other proposals in this ordinance scheduled for consideration would include accessory dwelling to allow caregivers and dependent children to help parents age in place, and it also features a detailed breakdown of commercial uses mixed with each other or with residential uses, replacing “layered zoning” with specific rules for what would go where, as seen in the chart below.

Central business districts and neighborhood commercial zones would also be open to new uses, such as recording and film editing studios in commercial second-floor space and more “body art” establishments – not just traditional tattoo parlors but also salons that do beauty-based body art (eyebrows, for example).  Mayor Robert Jackson wondered if having more tattoo parlors was a good idea, but Montclair Business Improvement District (BID) Director Israel Cronk was quick to point out that all body-art establishments would be strictly regulated and there was no need to anticipate a flood of them taking up residence in Montclair.  Talley said the change to allow more body-art studios was in deference to the growth of that business sector.

One change that troubled Mayor Jackson was Talley’s recommendation that the maximum building height of six stories in the central business district be reduced to four stories. The mayor was concerned that property owners in the business district, whether they intend to build six-story buildings or not, would sue the town over losing 33 percent of their properties’ values.  Mayor Jackson, himself a developer, noted that no six-story building had been built along Bloomfield Avenue under zoning laws since they were first allowed in 1919, and parking requirements made buildings of such heights so prohibitive they wouldn’t be built anyway.  Hence, he reasoned, there was no need to change the zoning law and risk lawsuits.  (The Valley & Bloom complex and the MC Hotel do not count here, as they were built in areas designated for redevelopment and not through the usual process.)  Talley noted the mayor’s concerns, saying she’d relay them to other Planning Board members.

The council had just passed, 7-0, an ordinance amending the rehabilitation regulations for affordable housing.   The amendment states that all rehabilitated units “shall remain affordable to low-and moderate-income households” for a 10-year affordable-control period.  Controls on owner-occupied units are to be enforced with a lien; controls for renter-occupied units, the control period are to be enforced with a deed restriction. (The township is to grant $15,000 for each unit that is rehabilitated through the program. But Fourth Ward Councilor Renée Baskerville wanted something more.  She wanted a clause in the amendment that addresses the possibly of building affordable housing on township land and other property.  Talley said that it’s in the current housing-element fair share plan and the Coalition On Affordable Housing-approved spending plan.  Dr. Baskerville still wanted to see something in writing, something possibly enshrining the development of the vacant lot off Wildwood Avenue in the First Ward for workforce housing.  First Ward Councilor William Hurlock said he had not discussed that idea, which had been floated during the Fried council, with anyone and that he preferred Talley’s suggestion of developing another ordinance around Dr. Baskerville’s suggestion.  Councilor Hurlock’s predecessor as First Ward Councilor, Rich Murnick, had supported development of the so-called “Wildwood Properties” for affordable housing. Running on the Jackson slate in 2012, he lost his bid for re-election – the only Jackson candidate that year who failed to win.

Dr. Baskerville also said she was interested in the town studying the possible purchase of another property – 360 Orange Road, a narrow, vacant wooded lot – for public use as open space. Attempts to develop the property have so far been unsuccessful.

Also Township Manager Tim Stafford reviewed a professional service agreement with Neglia Engineering Associates to provide engineering expertise in the wake of Township Engineer Kim Craft’s resignation to accept a new position for the city of Hoboken.  Third Ward Councilor Sean Spiller said ensuring an accessible engineering service for the township and for residents was vital.  He said he wanted to make sure that Neglia would provide hands-on service, and Stafford said he would.

Township Attorney Ira Karasick advised the council on the possibility of an ordinance that would enforce Internet service providers to live up to the spirit of Net neutrality, which Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai terminated on June 11.  Governor Phil Murphy signed an order requiring Internet service providers that do business with the state to treat all Internet content equally, but this does not apply to municipalities. Karasick said it was possible that Montclair could follow the state’s lead.

The ordinance entering Montclair into a government energy aggregation program with other Essex County communities was also passed on second reading, 5-2.  Councilor Hurlock and Deputy Mayor / Second Ward Councilor Robin Schlager remained unconvinced that there would be any transparency pertaining to the energy suppliers in program, meant to provide electricity from clean-energy sources, and both voted against it as they had done on first reading.

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  1. “Mayor Jackson, himself a developer, noted that no six-story building had been built along Bloomfield Avenue under zoning laws since they were first allowed in 1919, and parking requirements made buildings of such heights so prohibitive they wouldn’t be built anyway. Hence, he reasoned, there was no need to change the zoning law and risk lawsuits.

    The Whole Foods parcel, owned by Vornado, could park 6 stories…and I could see them with their deep pockets suing. Ironically, the Township is currently assessing whether to designate this lot with a historic overlay. Considering the Council’s lack of interest in protecting historic sites, such a designation will be a waste of time and $. Maybe Vornado, like Pinnacle, will bring in a historic consultant to say it is really not historic. And it is in the 3rd Ward.

  2. I truly would like to see some tall glass sheathed spires in Montclair Center amongst the existing vintage buildings. They would be luminous at night and would create a beautiful townscape with the NYC Skyline. To achieve this type of composition, moving forward, the zoning change would be a good thing. But it has to be a “give and take” with stricter preservation regulations. Re development has to have the correct respect for the old and landmark buildings because thats what gives Montclair a valuable character in real estate. Statistically, removing a landmark from an existing neighborhood context lessens the surrounding real estate values by 9% – 10%. The same real estate value equation applies for the value of a “view” feature, like the downtown’s view of NYC. It is an indisputable fact that landmarks add value to real estate and that destroying landmarks decrease value from existing neighborhoods. 
    There must be more regulatory responsibility to preserve the real estate valves for those who invest so much in their old vintage properties in a town full of old houses like Montclair and the responsibility of preserving the social fabric of the existing community “in place “. 

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