Montclair Council Moves Forward With Anti-Demolition Protection of Historic Properties

The Montclair Township Council had a relatively brief conference meeting on May 7, passing some first-reading ordinances that clarify appointments to the Montclair Environmental commission and clarifying the process of referral of development applications from the Planning Board and the Zoning Board of Adjustment to the Historic Preservation Commission (HPC).  The bulk of the meeting, though, concerned Township Attorney Ira Karasick’s long-awaited ordinance governing permits for the demolitions of properties deemed historic.  Originally scheduled for a first-reading vote at the May 21 regular council meeting, it ended up being passed at the conference meeting.

The Montclair Township Council

Karasick had reviewed his ordinance with the Historic Preservation Commission at its April 25 meeting, but had not sent a draft to the Planning Board yet, and he opined that it would be a good idea to introduce it in order to allow the Planning Board to review and give feedback that might be useful.  Councilor-at-Large Rich McMahon noted that defining a structure according to its history is always hard, especially when historic districts contains houses of a more recent vintage that might not be seen as “historic.”  Karasick said that as many as 4,000 properties have been designated as historic.  Mayor Robert Jackson asked about how an anti-demolition ordinance would require a look at a property that an owner may want to demolish that is within a historic district, and Karasick said he would prefer to see a shortcut process for properties in historic districts that don’t have an historic designation.

Councilor McMahon asked if owners of properties designated historic were notified that their houses are on such a list.  Karasick said there is public notice of such properties, though he did say that it was a “good suggestion” that such property owners also be notified by mail in the interest of full transparency.

Karasick said the work of singling out historic properties for review would be a preservation officer, someone from the planning office or someone hired by the HPC, and he told Fourth Ward Councilor Renée Baskerville that the new position would utilize an existing municipal employee.   Mayor Jackson did say, though, that any existing employee who reviews houses up for possible demolition would get paid separately for that role in addition to his/her current position.  Dr. Baskerville wanted more information about the expenses and resources.

“We can help you with that,” Karasick said, adding that this process is only for total demolitions that haven’t been red-tagged by the township.  “We don’t have that many of those, I don’t have a number. Beyond saying that, I don’t have any instances where they’re going to have to be evaluated.  I can find out.”

Dr. Baskerville said she thought that the township could bring in someone in-house for the historic preservation officer the same way it brought in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) coordinator.  Acting Township Manager Tim Stafford said he could look into that, and Dr. Baskerville said it made sense to utilize someone already with the township.

Mayor Jackson expressed concern that only the preservation officer and the HPC chair would have the authority to review houses up for possible demolitions, and he suggested that a third person, possibly the vice chair of the HPC, should also be involved. The mayor also objected to a 45-day period for the HPC to get back to the applicants when, given the monthly schedule of HPC meetings, it should be 60 days.    Karasick was open to a third person making decisions on proposed demolitions, but, while he sympathized with the mayor on extending the turnaround period for the HPC to get back to the applicants, he was working with a mandatory 45-day window set by the state, but he would see if there was a way to extend it.

With the moratorium on demolitions set to expire on May 15, Mayor Jackson proposed introducing the ordinance immediately rather than wait until May 21 in order to start the process of vetting it and presenting it to the Planning Board before going to a final vote.  The mayor wanted an official handoff to both the Planning Board and the Zoning Board of Adjustment, which an introduction at this meeting would allow sooner rather than later, and it was amended to include the Zoning Board as a body to review the ordinance.  An amendment to have a three-person board to review houses up for possible demolitions – the preservation officer and two HPC members rather than just the chair, was also put in.  The council then passed it unanimously to start the process toward review and a second-reading vote.

The council also reviewed a resolution up for a May 21 vote that authorizes the submission of an application to the New Jersey Hazardous Discharge Site Remediation Fund for a grant for extra costs associated with a remediation project at a vacant lot at 399 Orange Road.  Manager Stafford said that site remediation professional has recommended sampling contaminated soil and excavating areas of concern; the contaminated soil to be replaced with new top soil at a cost of $289,400.  The resolution would approve a state grant covering $217,050 of the cost, leaving the township to pay the remaining $72,350.  Dr. Baskerville, whose ward includes the property at 399 Orange Road, asked if there was a way to expedite this and let the township front the money, get it done, and get the money back. Manager Stafford said he’d have to look into the issue of whether the township could spend the money and be reimbursed for it, but he said that was normally against grant rules and besides, he didn’t think there was room in the budget to put up the entire $289,400.  Dr. Baskerville had expressed frustration in the fact that the Orange Road property had not been remediated yet.

The lot in need for remediation at 399 Orange Road,. Image courtesy of Google.

Also, Manager Stafford brought for the council’s review a $300,000 capital ordinance for paving parking lots and decks for the Montclair Parking Utility’s capital improvement fund.  He said the town would get a lot of “bang for the buck” with passage of this ordinance.

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  1. As proposed, this draft of the ordinance will throw out the baby with the bath water. Furthermore, the referral process to the Zoning and Planning Boards (no referral to the HPC?) will likely result in their reports in support because they 1) don’t fully understand the Township’s historic preservation ordinance and, 2) they don’t accept public comment during their reviews. We’ll end up with the Council next month conducting its public hearing at the 2nd reading. The Council will approve it because the land use bodies have signed off and the Council is getting antsy to get something on the books. Bye-bye baby. The slow dismantling of our historic preservation policy.

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