The Montclair Zoning Board of Adjustment found itself with only two applications to consider at its April 18 meeting where there had originally been four. An application for a six-unit multifamily dwelling on Walnut Street was postponed to the board’s May 15 meeting, and, in surprising turn of events, Deputy Planning Director Graham Petto announced that the application for the controversial proposed mega-mansion at 14 Undercliff Road and 172 Lloyd Road – which was to have replaced the demolished houses on those respective properties – had been withdrawn completely. Petto did not give a reason for the withdrawal.
The first hearing to take place was an appeal by resident Zachary Zeltzer against the zoning board’s decision back in October 2018 to reject his application for a poolhouse in his rear yard at 35 Afterglow Way because it would have greatly expanded the width of the house. Attorney Richard Skolnick insisted that the municipal zoning office had unfairly applied a standard that technically considered the pool a part of the house rather than as a separate accessory structure and had based the standard on an ordinance that has not yet been passed by the township council. The as-yet unratified ordinance would require a minimum of 10 feet separating accessory structures from houses, and the separation for the proposed poolhouse was nowhere near 10 feet. In fact, it was one inch.
Why one inch? J. Michael Petri, the engineer for the project, explained to the board that the structure had to be located in the rear yard as required, and an enclosed walkway that would come out 13 feet from the house’s rear door and turn ninety degrees and back toward the accessory structure in order to keep the overall length of the building at 64.5 percent of the lot width to meet the lot width requirement. Because of this, the enclosure stops just an inch short of the poolhouse, but the marginal separation between the poolhouse and the main residence allows the project to avoid a variance for having a lot width more than what municipal zoning laws allow.
The current ordinance, Skolnick thus reasoned, had no specific requirements for a minimum separation between the two structures, and the zoning office cannot dictate the minimum requirement on its own until the town council officially amends the law, which it has not done.
Chair William Harrison did most of the talking for the board, trying to discern if the one-inch separation was enough to render the poolhouse a separate structure. He asked about the proposed glass enclosures around the pool in relation to the main house. Petri and Skolnick said that the panels can be opened up on sunny days, along with the roof, so it would clearly not be a proper part of the house. Any plumbing, they added, would be strictly to deliver water to the pool and not for any use like a bathroom or a sink.
Chair Harrison conceded the letter of the law, saying that if Zeltzer wanted to re-apply for the right to build this poolhouse, he needed plans that specifically show how the one-inch separation could work. Board member Jerry Simon said the plans and the reliance on a one-inch separation violated the spirit of the law but he grudgingly agreed with Chair Harrison that the architecture and the engineering of the project could show a clear separation despite the minuscule separate space between them. The board voted to allow the appeal to go forward. One issue the board did not decide on was whether or not the accessory structure qualified for a legitimate use in the first place. The zoning office had not made that determination, despite Skolnick’s insistence that the pool in the accessory structure was in fact a legitimate use, but in the absence of the zoning board’s decision on the matter, Chair Harrison invited the applicant and his attorney to have that issue debated and decided before the board. Zeltzer and Skolnick declined, saving that issue for another day.
The second hearing was for a redesign of a multifamily project for the properties at 11 and 13 Washington Street proposed by Schreck Development. The Totowa-based developers offered up a new design similar to the earlier one. Instead of one big house with four apartments, the Schrecks were now offering up two separate houses, each with 2½ units – the half-unit in each structure would be a loft. Each full unit would be comprised of two stories and the basement. They would occupy the ends of each building, with the rear units having their main entrances at the rear; the front entrance to the front units would also have staircases for access to the loft apartments. Each of the two full units in each house would still have three bedrooms, but they would be spread out to one unit per floor, including the basement. The architecture would still resemble that of the since-discarded single four-unit structure, with brick façades, limestone and cast-stone accents, and mansard roofs.
The height variance sought for the original building has been eliminated, thanks to the scaled-back nature of the design, but other variances remain. There is a five-foot side yard setback for Lot 10 (11 Washington Street) and a six-yard side yard setback for Lot 11 (13 Washington Street), and so the developers need a variance of the required minimum side yard setbacks of six feet from one side and 10 feet from the other side. A variance to allow a lot width of 25 feet has been requested in recognition of the required minimum standard lot width of 60 feet. The required front yard setback is 25 feet; the application calls for a front yard setback half that length. Also, the application calls for two parking spaces on each lot, when four spaces are required for the proposed dwelling on each lot.
Planner Charles Olivo testified on the variances in explaining their benefits. He believed that the reduced amount of parking could create some “tension” in the decision of the residents of the buildings as to whether or not to buy a car, explaining that too much parking would only generate too many cars where public transportation was immediately available. He also said the benefits to the neighborhood meant new, modern-standard buildings that would improve the immediate area. The design plan would be more efficient, with relief from the landscaping around the new houses for a positive on the block.
Board member Angela Harris expressed concern that the driveway between the two houses connecting the rear parking spaces with the street would be too narrow, but Olivo saw little problem with that. He explained that residents would be compelled to take turns pulling in and out and do so with great caution. He and engineer Michael Fantina were open to providing a narrow walkway along the edge of the driveway for residents of the rear dwellings to walk on to get to their apartment entries. But board member Thomas Reynolds urged that the basement bedrooms be placed elsewhere, though he did not feel it necessary to include that as a condition for approval. Board member Kevin Allen was dead set against the basement bedroom design, and he also said he wanted to see fire sprinklers installed as well.
Chair Harrison laid out a set of conditions for approval, including a stipulation that the HVAC units not be seen from the ground, the aforementioned side walkway for residents in the rear apartments for the planning staff to review, and a six-foot-high fence. He also suggested sprinklers, but the applicant is not required to provide them in structures of this nature, and they said that they cannot afford to include them. The board approved the project with Allen voting no and Reynolds abstaining.