Redevelopment and the environment were on the agenda at the Montclair Township Council’s July 10 conference meeting. The council heard from Planning Director Janice Talley about an upcoming ordinance changing the zoning laws and also heard from residents and Montclair Environmental Commission members about trees, the Bonsal Preserve, and a possible open space tax.
Director Talley went over some of the recommendations she had in her proposed zoning ordinance. Among her changes was to allow a maximum height of six stories and 67 feet for buildings in the C-1 zone along Bloomfield Avenue but also to require that on-site parking be included with any new six-story building. Density would be capped at 55 dwelling units per acre. The proposed rewording, Talley said, was to ensure that developers would have to mind strict limitations in building projects in Montclair Center.
Mayor Robert Jackson remained skeptical of way the changes were laid out and the haphazardness of their execution. He was afraid of any changes that might result in litigation against the town by developers who may already own property along the Bloomfield Avenue corridor, and he reminded the council and Talley that an ordinance from 1919 allowing six-story buildings is already on the books but has never been taken advantage of simply because parking would already be difficult to provide, and that making it more difficult to build six-story buildings on Bloomfield Avenue would merely be preventing something that already can’t happen. The ordinance was passed after World War I, at about the same time motor vehicles were becoming more prevalent in the country.
Fourth Ward Councilor Renée Baskerville said the Planning Board seemed to be recommending that anything can be done in the Eastern Gateway along Bloomfield Avenue, with no limitations. Talley said there was a draft provision to encourage investment in smaller properties that exempted properties less than 20,000 square feet in size from a density requirement, and she said she took that out. Dr. Baskerville said she could not understand why there was even any consideration of a proposal to allow a developer to build “as high and as deep as you want.”
Mayor Jackson said a better document was needed and that it should be laid out better. Until Talley and the Economic Development Committee can go over it more comprehensively, Jackson said he did not think changing any zoning rules was urgently necessary. The ordinance had been originally placed on the agenda for the July 24 meeting.
Meanwhile, two members of the Montclair Environmental Commission Sandra Chamberlain and Suzanne Aptman, appeared before the council in the absence of the scheduled presentation of township arborist Steve Schuckman. They alerted the council to the fact that many newly planted trees are dying. They suggested that there might be a way to enter in with an adjacent town to share watering services to keep the trees well watered. Deputy Mayor / Third Ward Councilor Sean Spiller asked Acting Township Manager Tim Stafford to look into what an outside entity could do to come in and water the trees so they could have a baseline cost to present to Schuckman when he is able to appear before the council.
Second Ward Councilor Robin Schlager suggested the township might want to take a look at the tree service contractor for the town, but Manager Stafford said the contractor’s work has been superb in maintaining the trees. Deputy Mayor Spiller was still interested in having some conversations with the contractor, because he would be “on the hook” for all of the young trees dying.
Trees were a concern for resident Jonathan Grupper and Clifton Environmental Commission member Vera Lazar, both of whom were concerned by the actions of the North Jersey District Water Supply Commission and its efforts to remove trees in the Bonsal Preserve to clear roots away from the water line. Both Grupper and Lazar expressed concern about deforestation. Lazar said the trees expected to be removed stand between the water line and the river bank, and removing them would have a negative impact on the preserve. She also charged that the water commission does not have any permits for their plans.
Montclair Environmental Commission co-chair Lyle Landon expressed interest in the council possibly considering a ballot initiative to institute an open space tax. She proposed a survey, which would cost $18,000, asking Montclair residents if they would be amenable to putting such a tax on the ballot in time for the November elections. The tax may actually have a good chance of passing; when the county put a similar tax proposal on the ballot in 2007, which passed, 65 percent of Montclair residents voted for it. The deadline for getting any ballot question approved for the 2018 elections is August 17.
Dr. Baskerville also informed the council that a vacant property along Orange Road is available for about $231,000. She said it would be a beneficial piece of open space for the densely developed Fourth Ward, perhaps as a possible bird sanctuary – as opposed to a proper park, which would require more maintenance. Manager Stafford said he will ask Township Chief Financial Officer Padmaja Rao to look into financing a possible purchase of the property.