Morristown hopes to slow tear-downs with anti-demolition ordinance

The scheduled demolition of this home in Morristown's Historic District has spurred an anti-demolition ordinance. Photo by Kevin Coughlin April 25, 2019
The scheduled demolition of this carriage house in Morristown's Historic District has spurred an anti-demolition ordinance. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
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A Morristown law won’t save historic structures from the wrecking ball. But it may buy enough time to beg for a reprieve– or at least, to document what is being lost.

Responding to neighbors’ concerns about a tear-down in the town’s Historic District, and to stories about razed estates in Montclair, the council voted 4-0 on Tuesday to introduce a measure requiring applicants to submit their demolition plans for review by the town Historic Preservation Commission.

If approved next month, the ordinance will impose a nine-month timeout, superseding a six-month moratorium on demolitions declared in March by Mayor Tim Dougherty.

This will apply to structures larger than 120 square feet designated as “preferably preserved” by the town Historic Preservation Commission.

In such cases, the town zoning officer may deny a demolition permit. The applicant then may appeal to the town zoning board.

If the board upholds a denial, the applicant must wait nine months before proceeding with demolition.

Additionally, the applicant must show he or she worked with the Historic Preservation Commission to evaluate “viable alternatives to demolition,” made “good faith attempts” to sell or rent the property at fair market value, and allowed the commission to photograph the building inside and out and collect related historical records. Advance notice of the demolition must be advertised.

Violations come with penalties escalating from $500 to $2,000 per day, and up to 90 days in jail. If a building is demolished without satisfying these requirements, the town may deny a building permit for five years.

“Though redevelopment is important in the life cycle of any municipality, we cannot consider redevelopment without recognizing the importance of preserving the valuable building stock that makes our historic town interesting and desirable,” Dougherty told the council on Tuesday.

“To that end, the planning division has been working with the historic preservation committee on a demolition ordinance that is reasonable and fair to allow property owners to invest in their homes, while preventing the rash removal of an irreplaceable structure without first undergoing careful consideration of all alternatives, and ensuring that structures of historic significance are documented for posterity,” the mayor said.

To be designated as “preferably preserved,” a structure either must be:

  • At least 100 years old;
  • Mentioned as an Historic Resource in the Town’s Master Plan;
  • Listed or deemed eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, which covers aesthetics/architecture, and connections to historic events, movements or historical figures;
  • Worthy of an archaeological investigation; or
  • Located within a State or National Historic District.

Demolition permits cost $75. Council President Toshiba Foster and Council members Alison Deeb and David Silva were absent from Tuesday’s vote.

BIGGER THAN THE WHITE HOUSE

Residents and town officials were alarmed in February by a pair of knockdowns of historic mansions in Montclair, where a Turkish billionaire aimed to erect a mega-mansion to rival Mar-A-Lago.

Montclair’s mayor declared a moratorium on future demolitions, while city officials contemplate resurrecting a 2012 “no knock-down” law. One of the razed buildings dated to the Civil War. Plans for a 60,000-square-foot mansion larger than the White House were withdrawn last week.

Jersey City also passed an ordinance this month requiring  historic preservation reviews prior to issuance of demolition permits.

Dougherty met with residents of Morristown’s Historic District at the Kellogg Club in February to discuss the planned demolition of a carriage house at 55 Miller Road, at the intersection of Colles Avenue.

Some residents said the prairie-style house planned there will appear out of place among stately Victorian homes, which are a short walk from Morristown’s vibrant downtown and historic Green. Others expressed fears of more tear-downs and “house farms.”

Morristown Mayor Tim Dougherty, left, discusses a tear-down with residents of the Historic District, at the Kellogg Club in February 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Morristown Mayor Tim Dougherty, left, discusses a tear-down with residents of the Historic District, at the Kellogg Club in February 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

But longtime resident Mitch Cobert, whose home overlooks the site, noted that the carriage house buyer, orthopedic surgeon Wayne Colizza, secured unanimous approvals from the town zoning board.

Colizza, who bought the property for $700,000 last fall, said he had eyed this neighborhood for years, and desired to be a good neighbor.

His architect told him the carriage house had too many interior problems to salvage. For its replacement he could have opted for a more imposing, traditional three-story design, he said. Instead, he chose something that better fits the sloping topography, which poses drainage challenges in addition to aesthetic ones.

“I think the worst thing we could have done was take complete advantage of what the rules allow,” said Colizza, who cooperated voluntarily with the Historic Preservation Commission.

Commission Chairman Ken Miller, a resident of the Historic District, said Colizza’s design calls for high-quality materials and is “not intrusive.”

The carriage house once was the home of Harry Hoyt, a former town official, lawyer, painter and author who died in 2012 at age 97.

Miller reminded neighbors in February that his commission is strictly an advisory body, with no enforcement powers. Placing a home on a state- or national historic register does not guarantee protection from demolition, either, he said.

The only step that might do so, Miller suggested, would be creation of a regulatory commission.

Such a body would oversee aesthetic details for every neighborhood in town, cautioned the mayor, who also lives in the Historic District.

“You don’t want anybody telling you what color to paint your house,” Dougherty told the February gathering, which included town Attorney Vij Pawar, Morris County Tourism Director Leslie Bensley, and about a dozen residents.  “You don’t want to go down that road.”

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3 COMMENTS

  1. Who approved the monstrosity under construction 2 blocks away from this on Mt. Kemble? Not in the Historic District, but come on.

  2. While the zoning board was the venue that heard the application, several members had to recuse themselves. Planning board members filled in for them and voted to approve the application.

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