Montclair Zoning Board: Jeh Johnson, Garage Conversion, Bank Building at 441 Bloomfield Avenue

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The Montclair Zoning Board of Adjustment was forced to meet in the conference room at the township municipal building due to a specially located meeting of the Essex County Board of Chosen Freeholders in the council chambers.  The inconvenience, though, did not have an adverse affect on the zoning board members, who managed to hear and approve three out of five applications on the agenda.  The other two were carried over to the board’s October 17 meeting.

The Montclair Zoning Board of Adjustment

The highest-profile application, by virtue of name recognition, involved Jeh Johnson, the nation’s fourth Secretary of Homeland Security and a Montclair resident.   Former Secretary Johnson and his wife filed an application for a fence at the house at Porter Place that they own and are preparing for their return to Montclair after the former secretary’s eight years in Washington.  The fence required a variance to allow a 5.6-foot maximum height for the fence where only a 4.5-foot maximum fence height is allowed.  Board Vice Chair Joseph Fleischer recused himself from this application.

Former Secretary Johnson himself appeared at the hearing with landscape designer Lisa Mierop, who testified about the fence at the Historic Preservation Commission’s August 23 meeting, and he addressed the board at the start of the hearing.  “During my eight years in Washington,” he said, “one of the things I looked forward to most was returning to Montclair.  [My wife and I] are very dedicated to this community and we want to rededicate ourselves to this community.  Part of that is fixing up our house.”  The former secretary added that his intent was to preserve the integrity of the house respect to the interior and the property.

Former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and landscape architect Lisa Mierop

Mierop then presented her plans for the fence and for the gate in front of the driveway, which she had revised per the Historic Preservation Commission’s concerns.  The gate is to be made of solid wood in a fairy-tale Tudor style, with an aged look and a dark gray color.  The pillars are to be of stacked fieldstone.  She said the intention was to make it look like it was always there and should not look like a new addition.  The gate now has a descending curve instead of an ascending curve, with just a very small portion of the fence above the allowed maximum height.  The gate starts at 5.6 feet in height and comes down to about 4.5 feet in the middle.  The gate itself is 13.2 feet wide, and is in line with the house.  Also, the plantings are already equal to the height of the piers in the fence.   The use of automatic openers, however, necessitated a solid gate.

The zoning board had no problem overall with the design, and Chair William Harrison noted that it was 98 percent conforming, the variance covering only a minor deviation.  Board member John McCullough believed it preserved the historical aspects of the house.  The board approved the application with a vote that was unanimous apart from Vice Chair Fleischer’s recusal.  Chair Harrison told former Secretary Johnson he was pleased to see him back in Montclair.

Another application involved converting a two-car garage at an Inwood Terrace home into a one-car garage.  Because the width of the garage would be reduced from 16 feet 6 inches to 10 feet 10 inches but leave an off-street parking space between the building and the curb of the street, where parking is not allowed, homeowner Cheryl Oberdorf had to seek a variance for the remodeling.  Oberdorf and her architect, Robert Algarin, said the garage was more of 1.5-car-width garage than a garage for two cars, because the garage doorways were too narrow to drive a car in, and the mechanism for each garage door took up already limited interior space.  Oberdorf instead planned to pare the garage down to the aforementioned 10 feet 10 inches and use the 5-foot-8-inch width left over to create storage space and convert an adjacent powder room into a full bathroom, which she said would help her age in place.

A rendering of 4 Inwood Terrace, with its garage converted to one-car use

Board members were generally supportive of the plan, although Vice Chair Fleischer did ask if a single garage door for two spaces might be considered, in order to meet the two-space requirement.  Algarin said this would be impractical, and he doubted that a single door for the garage as it currently exists could even fit.

Chair Harrison said he could approve the variance, mainly because he thought that an expansion for the garage to make it wide enough for two cars would be more detrimental by taking away side-yard space, and that by granting the variance, it would be unnecessary to widen the driveway.  The board approved the application unanimously.

Finally, engineer Richard Keller testified on the outstanding application for Sovos Brands firm, which specializes in buying the rights to prepackaged foods, to convert the old Montclair Savings bank building at the corner of Glenridge and Bloomfield Avenues.  He said that Sovos had been attracted to the neoclassical look of the building, because, having been specifically designed for a bank building, the architecture was meant to signify security and strength. Keller argued against trying to turn it into retail space, because of the height of the windows and the unfeasibility of a single retail tenant in the space inside.  Also, he said, the lack of entrances along Bloomfield Avenue made subdividing the space impossible.

Though a variance was sought for signage, the main variance was to allow office space on the first floor of a building in a retail/commercial zone.  Keller pointed out that the main office space would be on the second floor, with the first floor and basement used as collaborative space by the employees.  The open collaborative space on the first floor is meant to provide a welcome space for visitors to enter.

The board approved the variances, including variances to allow two plaques on either side of the front door, unanimously.  The application for a poolhouse on Afterglow Way, meant to be continued at this meeting, was delayed until October 17, as was a hearing for an application for a house at Upper Mountain Avenue.  The owner of that house had informed a newspaper of record but the paper had failed to publish the notice in proper time.  The homeowner said he would re-inform the newspaper as quickly as possible so that the notice can be published in time for the October 17 meeting.

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