Montclair Planning Board Finally Hears, Approves Valley & Bloom Signage and Debnam Re-Application

It had been a long time coming – many would have said it was too long – but two applications scheduled to go before the Montclair Planning Board at earlier meetings were finally heard and passed at the board’s regular meeting on August 13.  The applications had been carried over from previous meetings owing to the ongoing hearing for the Lackawanna Plaza project, which resumes on August 27.

Attorney Jen Porter (left) and Valley & Bloom property manager Tracey Wilkinson testify before the Planning Board on signage for Valley & Bloom.

First up was a hearing for signage at the Valley & Bloom complex.   The application, which had been brought before the Montclair Historic Preservation Commission in May per accordance with the redevelopment plan for the Western Gateway region,  was postponed twice before this meeting.  Valley & Bloom property manager Tracey Wilkinson and attorney Jen Porter of the Chiesa, Shahinian and Giantomasi law firm explained the purpose of the proposed signage bearing Valley & Bloom’s name was to direct to the building people who might be interested in leasing apartments at the complex and also to the leasing office itself in the shorter Valley & Bloom building.  One Valley & Bloom sign would be placed on the canopy of the taller building over the residents’ entrance at the southwest corner of Valley Road and Bloomfield Avenue for the benefit of motorists on those county roads (Valley Road is a county road – Route 621 – north of its intersection with Bloomfield Avenue, numbered 506).  Another Valley &Bloom sign would be placed on the canopy over the main entrance to the smaller building facing Centroverde Drive, which would designate the location of the leasing office.

In addition, door-level medallion signs with the address numbers – 34 Valley Road for the shorter building, 36 Valley Road for the taller one – at the main entrances to each building, which face each other along Centroverde Drive, would be included.  Wilkinson asked for a variance for the two medallions for each building because only one medallion sign per building is permitted.  The applicant requested a variance to permit canopy sign lettering higher than the lowest 12 inches of the canopy with lettering higher than six inches; the lettering would be 18 inches from the bottom of the canopies and the lettering itself would be twelve inches.  The lettering itself would be a purplish burgundy color to offset the dark bronze canopies.  Steve Lydon of Burgis Associates, testifying on the effectiveness of the signage, said the signs would help with finding one’s way and with ”branding,” and it would enliven the overall appearance of the streetscapes.

Tracey Wilkinson explains the proposed Valley & Bloom signage for the Planning Board.

Board member Carmel Loughman asked why a pair of buildings that are “hard to miss’ would need identifying signage, and Wilkinson said it was meant to alert people looking for Valley & Bloom that these were the buildings.  Board member Martin Schwartz felt there was no need to brand the building, insisting that the need for such signage was different from the retail and office signage on both Valley & Bloom structures because “you’re not selling a building.”  Wilkinson said the branding was an ad for the apartments aimed at prospective renters, and Planning Director Janice Talley concurred that several residential buildings have sings bearing their names.  Wilkinson cited the Siena on South Park Street as a Montclair example.

Board member Anthony Ianuale thought a sign over the residential entrance of the taller building on the corner would confuse people into thinking that was the location of the leasing office, and he suggested a sign specifically designating the leasing office could be added, though he also said to Wilkinson, “It’s your call.”

The board approved the signage on condition that colors be specified and drawings be redone and resubmitted, but with one dissenting vote – that of Martin Schwartz, who has never been a fan of the Valley & Bloom project.

That out of the way, the board re-heard an application from Mitchell MacGregor to buy half of homeowner Samuel Debnam’s property at 448 Washington Avenue and build a new house adjacent to Debnam’s own, subdividing the property in the process.  Attorney Alan Trembulak argued the original application, rejected in a tie vote, had been changed enough to avoid a case of res judicata – that is, where a matter has been decided and cannot be revisited.  The plans had been changed, Trembulak said, to eliminate two variances sought in the earlier application.  The board agreed the application had been sufficiently changed, allowing it to proceed.

A blueprint of the Debnam property, showing the existing conditions on the left and the subdivision on the right. The five inset pictures at the bottom show the proposed new house between the existing houses on Washington Avenue to show the new house’s scale.

Mitchell MacGregor himself did not testify, but architect John Guadagnoli and planner Peter Steck did.  Guadagnoli went first, showing his plan for the new house that would be set back 10 feet from the avenue, conforming to the setback standard, and would also have western and eastern side yards of 13 feet and 9.2 feet in depth, respectively – more than needed.   The elimination of a porch along the westerly side of the existing house would get rid of both a need for a variance for a nonconforming westerly side yard for Debnam’s existing house and a variance for the existing house’s nonconforming width. Guadgnoli said he planned to add a back porch to Debnam’s house to compensate for the lost porch, and that would be compliant with depth requirements.

The new house would be a two-story traditional structure with loft space in the attic and be a replica of another house Guadagnoli designed and built in 2015 at 28 Gray Street in Montclair – the Gray Street house’s old-fashioned architecture, he said, was a major selling point to prospective buyers.  Debnam’s detached garage, in a twist, would be behind the new house, so Guadagnoli plans to build a new garage for Debnam directly behind his existing house. When all is done, Debnam’s current 100-foot-wide property with one house would be two 50-foot properties with two houses, each with a detached garage services by a common driveway.

28 Gray Street in Montclair, built in 2015. The new house on Washington Avenue would be a replica of this house.

Peter Steck testified to the nature of the neighborhood the property is in to defend the remaining variance for a 50-foot property width when 60 feet is the standard, noting that the majority of houses in the neighborhood – 68 percent – have property widths of less than 60 feet, and some have property widths as narrow as 33 feet.  Relief from the 60-foot standard, Steck argued, should be granted where there is land use influence in the immediate are shows lot widths less than 60 feet.  He based his argument on the 1987 master plan passed by Montclair, though he confessed he had no idea why future master plans did not acknowledge the need for relief.  He said that Debnam’s lot was oversized and thus ideal for subdividing, and the huge depth of the property allowed for an additional house, in keeping with the character of the neighborhood.

Samuel Debnam, 97, spoke for himself, re-iterating his earlier point that he had bought the property with the understanding that he could subdivide it and have another house built if he ever needed money to stay in his house, as his real estate agent had told him. Chairman Wynn agreed with Steck’s logic, saying the proposed plan was in keeping with the rhythm of the neighborhood.  The board approved the application unanimously, with Martin Schwartz voting yes on this one – but with reservations.  He was afraid that approval of the application would set a bad precedent for subdividing property in other areas where open space was more important than “infill” – development in areas already developed – but he did agree the project on Washington Avenue would be in keeping with the neighborhood. Debnam’s many friends and relatives – having been angered by the rejection of the original application in February – applauded appreciatively.

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  1. I’m happy that Mr. Debnan will be able to stay in his home. A good decision and it preserves neighborhood fabric.

  2. A unanimous vote indicates the original dissenters had unanimously conceded their first votes were wrong. That vote rejected the same 50′ lot frontages, too. The substantial factor in deciding a case of Res Judicata was unchanged. The other 2 variance requests withdrawn were minor. The Board ignored the Res Judicata to rectify their mistake. This should be the future concern regarding precedent. A messy solution.

  3. I personally prefer the committee reports schedule adhere to the PB by-laws and come at the beginning of the meeting after the approval of the minutes. Whatever rules the PB ends up following, it would be respectful to the public if you actually give committee reports or indicate at the outset that it will not be on the agenda. I was looking forward to an update on the Orange Road Parking Deck design problem.

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