Montclair Zoning Board Considers Twin Townhouses For Walnut Street

The second monthly meeting of the Montclair Zoning Board of Adjustment for 2019, originally scheduled for February 20, was postponed due to a dicey wintry mix of rain, ice and snow that day, so the meeting was held on Wednesday, March 6.  The board, with new members Michael Affrunti and Jay Church, reviewed four applications but only approved one outright.  The biggest application, for a redevelopment of a large property at 137 Walnut Street, was left for further consideration until April 17.

Khadija and Victor Barkley own the property at Walnut Street where Personal Touch Automotive detailing, an auto styling shop, is currently located.  The Barkleys propose to build two townhouses comprising five two-bedroom units between them, and they plan to renovate the existing two-family house in the front of the property and its garage.  Personal Touch occupies a barn-like structure deep in back of the 22,830-square-foot property.

The Barkleys need a variance to permit construction of a multi-family dwelling for more than two families, and they need variances for minimum side yard setback of six feet where 10 feet are required; a 15.3-foot rear-yard setback, where 64.5-foot rear-yard setback is required;  a building coverage of 26.8% where the permitted maximum is 25%; and a six-foot fence where a 4.5-foot fence is required.

a rendering of two townhouses proposed for the back of 137 Walnut Street, with the smaller, one-unit townhouse to the right

Architect John Guadagnoli, who designed a widely praised house on the northeast corner of Walnut and Forest Streets not too far way, showed the Zoning Board a design that presented a plan for two townhouses with traditional styling designed to fit in the neighborhood that would be offset on the property to avoid massive bulk.  The larger townhouse would have four units spread out between two floors and a smaller townhouse would have one unit spread out between two floors.  Separate driveways, one leading in and the other leading out, would connect Walnut Street with a small rear parking lot with five spaces, with 14 spaces spread out between the first floors of each unit and the existing garage.   A small courtyard would separate the townhouses, along with a green space and a patio for a common yard in the back of the property.

the proposed common back yard for the townhouses planned for the back of 137 Walnut Street

Reaction from the board members was skeptical. Vice Chair Joseph Fleischer said there was too much building coverage and that the macadam lot proposed seemed to overpower the greenery, which includes mature trees Guadagnoli hopes to preserve.  While board member John McCullough did appreciate Guadagnoli’s creativity, new board member Church concurred with Vice Chair Fleischer, saying the high density of the project was an example of too much going on.  Traffic expert Corey Chase, who testified briefly, said separate one-way driveways provided good circulation and that the replacement of the existing auto detailing shop with residential structures would lessen the traffic, but the testimony given on this night satisfied very few.  Attorney Alan Trembulak, representing the Barkleys, still has to call the planner on the project as a witness, but the planner was unavailable.  He is looking to have the planner available when testimony on the project resumes in April.

Architect Courtney Rombough found herself before the board on this night testifying on two applications, though each had a different fate.   Her first application concerned homeowner John and Elizabeth Beltis’ plan for a new front porch at their home on 15 Locust Drive, which had been reviewed by the Historic Preservation Commission (HPC), because, though built in 1962, 15 Locust Drive is in the Estate Potential Historic Resource Area, which includes much older homes.  The homeowners requested a variance of the required minimum front-yard setback for interior lots, as the porch would be set back less than the required average of the four nearest houses.

a rendering of 15 Locust Drive in Montclair, with a front porch added

The board suggested that the porch be set back about a foot more and continue its perimeter straight across to make it fit better with the neighborhood, and Rombough was amenable to making such a revision.  The main issues came with the need to space the double columns supporting the overhang to give the porch a consistent look, and board members also objected to a single column at the left end of the frontage, urging Rombough to find a way to fit a double column there.  The HPC, however, would still have to review any stylistic details, including a proposed gable over the steps leading to the front door.  Board Chair William Harrison recommended keeping the application under the Zoning Board’s jurisdiction in case the HPC asks for changes that would require the homeowners to return to the Zoning Board, which the board approved.  Chair Harrison said he found the possibility of the application returning to the Zoning Board to be an unlikely one.

Rombough also handled an application for a two-family house on Forest Street for which the owners, who live in a first-floor apartment on the premises, proposed extending a third-floor dormer that is part of the second-floor unit.  There was only one problem; the dormer had already been expanded and the applicants were now coming for approval after the fact.  The design showed an expansion of the two bedrooms in the dormer with two storage spaces in the front of the house for the master bedroom.  Vice Chair Fleischer thought that the dormer needed to be set back farther from the front, and though board member John Caulfield would have gladly allowed the property owners to keep the dormer as is, the board approved Vice Chair Fleischer’s proposal to scale it back and lose the storage space closer to the front.

An application to build a new wing on a house on Lorraine Avenue, however, went down to defeat.  Homeowner Jon Ewing proposed replacing a decrepit one-story wing of his house, which is poorly insulated, with a two-story addition that would sit over an expansion of the basement and provide a family room.  But Vice Chair Fleischer found the large footprint of the addition excessive, and he noted that the zoning laws as they stand were conceived to prevent houses to be as large as Ewing’s house were the addition to be approved.  He suggested a family room be built in the rear, but architect Lawrence Quirk said the new family room proposed would be closer to the kitchen and improve the value of the house.  Nobody agreed that there was a legitimate hardship to justify the application, and the board voted to deny it.

At the end of the meeting, Deputy Planning Director Graham Petto announced that the controversial application for a mega-mansion on the site of two demolished estate homes on Undercliff and Lloyd Roads – originally scheduled to be heard on March 20 – was being postponed to April at the earliest.

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