Montclair Council Considers Six Story Maximum Zoning Ordinance; Concern About New Trees Dying

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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.

The Montclair Township Council

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.

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7 COMMENTS

  1. First, I don’t see the benefit of an Open Space Tax. Most of our open space costs are capitalized so the revenues collected are essentially to create a separate ledger fund to pay down the existing or new debt created…like parking lots in Edgemont Park. And now the rush to get it on the ballot by the August 17 deadline? Beware of expedited ordinances on taxation. They tend not to be vetted well.

    Second, on the issue of watering the new trees. We already capitalize our tree costs. Any contracted maintenance costs should have been provided within the debt ordinance. New trees need 5 gallons or so of water fed (at a low rate) 2-3 times a week in the drier months & less so in the other months during the first year. They still need to be watered, but less frequently in the 2nd year. The township arborist should have prepared a maintenance plan for the hundreds of trees we have been planting…and want to increase the annual number going forward.
    This problem should have been foreseen.

    On a different subject for the Council, Payment In Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) receipts –
    Our PILOT receipts were expected to increase $300K last year – primarily due payments kicking in from the Centro Verde project. This Council said it would be doing a better job than previous Councils in holding developers accountable on payments. We realized less than half the projected $300K increase from Centro Verde. Further, their projected PILOT revenues are expected to be flat to 2017. No Council has ever done a reconciliation of PILOT payments for the public. We have absolutely no idea how we are doing on this major revenue stream. PILOT revenue was a key plank of this Council. PILOT diverts revenue from the school district for municipal benefit. But, if we are not getting the municipal benefit, it is a lose-lose situation.

  2. I’m still waiting to see if the million spent on South Park Street was paid for through increased tax rates on the existing tenants.

  3. I’m very intrigued by Dr Baskerville’s suggestion to purchase the land. I will await more details on the parcel.

    It may be a great location for the 4th water well to service the lower zone of Montclair. Of course, we would welcome all birds that need a little open space, too.

  4. And to the main issue of zoning:

    If the Township wants to manipulate appropriate land use, they are taking the hard way to get there. If they, and the Planning Board and the Planning Department had developed a Master Parking Plan and strategies, the zoning execution wouldn’t be viewed by the Mayor as haphazard (maybe he meant arbitrary and/or capricious). We clearly don’t need or desire more 6 story buildings on Bloomfield Ave West of (above) Valley Rd. The logical geographical location would be below the Fullertons to leverage the elevation in mitigating their mass.

    Alas, we tabled any master parking strategies indefinitely. The Planning Board argues the existing parking requirements force almost all projects to get approval by the PB and hence, the PB doles these out parking variances in exchange for receiving other public wants. The Council’s rational for not following through on a plan eludes me.

    The bottom line is all the land use & governing bodies use the excessive, deleterious land use parking requirements as land-use duct tape…a general purpose tool applied in a unique manner determined by the body using it.

  5. In walks around my neighborhood, I see the recently planted trees. Two problems are obvious. First, whoever is planting the trees is doing it wrong. Second, the property owners need to be educated on how they can help – or by their actions can hurt newly planted trees. While I suspect many property owners don’t want these new trees in front of their homes, etc., I like to believe most see it as a benefit. For the latter group, the township should provide a little encouragement and enlightenment and let pride in property appeal and civic mindedness do the rest. It certainly couldn’t hurt.

  6. The developer that owns 430 Upper Mountain Ave has applied for a bulk setback variance that is scheduled to be heard next week. I’ve been waiting for this application as this is one of those properties the new zoning targeted to drastically reduce the minimum lot width. The Planning Dept wanted tto reclassify this 86′ wide lot from its conforming 80′ wide zoning down to a 60′ wide zone that would create a double lot development potential.

    I don’t know the developer’s plan in requesting this variance. It could be to extend the existing 1904 house’s frontage. It could be a precursor to subdividing the lot for two houses by creating a flag lot. I don’t understand the setback requirements well enough to say what could be built by right if the variance is approved and the new proposed lot width ordinance is passed by the Council. I do know the Planner’s proposal for 60′ wide lots sets a minimum lot size of 6,000 sf. This lot is 12,900 sf…effectively making this a double lot based on sf requirements. I only hope the Zoning Board is thoughtful in considering the variance request and fair and respectful to the owner’s right to develop this lot’s potential.

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