Valley Road Project Gets a Major Revision in Quest for Approval
There is sometimes a perception that Zoning Boards approve projects with little thought to the impact on the municipality in which they operate. In Clifton, these meetings indicate something very different, as applicants are sometimes questioned for hours and across many separate meeting dates in the Board’s quest to protect neighborhoods from unreasonable burdens while operating within the city ordinances. As per the city website, the (Zoning) Board of Adjustment (BOA) “Exercises the power to review and make decisions on appeals relating to interpretation of the Zoning Ordinances (Per NJSA 40:55D-69).” Zoning ordinances dictate how different properties within the city may be used - for residential or commercial building, for instance - and put limitations on things like fence height, how much of the property’s area is covered by impervious material, and how tall a structure may be.
The July 19th meeting of the BOA, headed by Vice Chair Gerard Scorziello as acting Chair, heard again from the applicant for 522 Valley Road. This application had been a hot topic at previous meetings with its initial proposal to build 20 townhouses across three buildings on this steep slope property meeting with many concerns and objections. Responding to feedback and objections from neighboring residents, the applicant returned with new plans which indicate instead a single row of six townhouse units.
The project architect described the design of the proposed townhouses and presented renderings to demonstrate their modern design. He went over the floorplans for each of the four levels, including a penthouse with a bonus room and access to roof deck space. This partial penthouse level gives each townhouse additional space of approximately 300 square feet to make up for the home’s narrow footprint. The applicant requested a variance on height limitations to allow for the four additional feet beyond what is allowed.
Some neighboring property owners voiced concerns, including worry that the penthouse level might be used as a fourth bedroom and that it might be an eyesore to neighbors on either side of it. The architect responded to these objections, citing the lack of a closet in that extra room and the setback from the roof, making it barely visible from ground level.
After a lengthy discussion and testimony, the Board indicated that the applicant would need to return on August 16th to allow for additional testimony from the Traffic and Project Engineers and for further public comments.
Main Foot and Ankle, LLC at 1610 Main Street and 80 W. 2nd Street, also returned, after having been carried several times. Represented by Glenn Peterson, the applicant was initially seeking three stories on an existing single-level building but is now seeking two. The plan is to occupy the first floor and lease the upstairs to another doctor. The applicant wants to demolish the vacant residence facing W. 2nd and extend the parking lot from what had previously been a bank, which requires a variance. The applicant also wants to add a second floor and add a small addition to the building’s left side.
Some neighbors from W. 2nd Street addressed the applicant’s witnesses, questioning whether the plans would result in further congestion on their small, one-way street. There was also concern regarding garbage collection from the on-site dumpster. Thomas Donahue, the engineer for the applicant, responded to these concerns and others. The biggest concern, shared by many of the commissioners, had to do with the number of parking spaces allotted. The applicant’s plans indicated 21 exam rooms on the first floor and unknown medical tenants on the second floor. Acting Chair Scorziello said that more time was needed to hear from the Planner. The application was carried to August 16th for further testimony.
Several new applications were heard, as well. Mohammad Jubran, represented by Gary Cohen, Esq., sought relief for an illegal three-piece bathroom already installed in his basement. His contractor, he said, did not pull the needed permits before doing the work and Jubran was subsequently fined. The City of Clifton does not permit full bathrooms to be constructed in basements; this serves as a deterrent to people using them as illegal apartments.
Cohen testified that Jubran’s parents live on the first floor of the two-family dwelling and that the father suffers from several medical conditions, including Multiple Sclerosis, which makes it difficult for him to step over the tub in the first-floor bathroom. The basement bathroom includes a shower stall with no tub and this, Jubran said, is what his father uses. Jubran also testified that Section 8 performs annual inspections of the property so if anything improper were happening with the basement, it would be discovered by that government entity.
Comm. Foukas said that this puts them in a tough spot but they can’t approve the application based on one person’s needs because if the house is sold, the variance would follow the house and not the person. Cohen rebutted, saying that the entire purpose of the BOA is to take into consideration special needs, such as this one. “It’s in your right and authority,” he said, “to give exceptions here.”
Comm. Braid asked if the tub couldn’t be converted to a stall shower to make the main floor bathroom more accessible. The applicant explained that he would not do this because of other people in the home who use the tub. Comm. O’Connor seemed not to consider this a valid reason and she also asked about converting the existing shower/tub to a stall only. Comm. Molner asked if the applicant would be willing to seal up the door in the basement to permanently remove access from the basement to the outside and the applicant agreed. Subsequently, Molner moved to approve the application with the stipulation that the outer door be permanently sealed. There was no second to the motion, however and Comm. Sochon next motioned to deny, with apologies. Comm. Gurkov seconded that motion and suggested that the applicant petition the City Council for changes to the ordinance, perhaps requesting amendments based on the ADA. The application was denied.
Dominic Iannarella, Esq., representing Lihua Zhou’s property at 605 Van Houten Avenue, requested permission to alter the use of the first floor in this mixed-use property. Zhou wants to change a daycare space to a massage and therapeutic services spa. Iannarella said that the spa would be a positive addition to the city and the commissioners agreed. It was easily approved with little discussion and no objections from the community.
Iannarella also represented Alex Milich, owner of Cafe Bubamara in Botany, who sought relief for a six-foot fence already installed where only four feet are permitted. This yard, while technically the front of his property at 10 James Street, acts as a rear yard to his restaurant, which faces Parker Avenue. The tall fence was installed as a deterrent, following incidents of trespass and a break-in of his van, which is parked there. Milich took full responsibility for not ensuring that the fence installer pulled the appropriate permit but requested a variance to allow it to remain, testifying that it has no negative impact on anyone since it abuts his other property and not a neighbor’s.
Comm. Molner said the fence is far outside the bounds of even the newer fence ordinance and he motioned to deny. The Board had mixed opinions and ultimately, the motion to deny failed. Comm. Gurkov then motioned to approve, given the uniqueness of the situation. That motion carried and the application was granted.
Milich’s second application was for 243 Parker Avenue, which used to be Pink Ice Cream. Milich wants to convert the building to a two-story bakery with a third floor to be used as housing for bakery workers. Milich, from the former Yugoslavia, bought the property and thinks a bakery as an extension to Cafe Bubamara would be a positive addition to the neighborhood. He said the bakery would not be a sit-down restaurant like Bubamara but would have some tables for people to sit with their purchased goods. It would be open from 8 am - 9 pm, seven days a week. The apartment, he said, would be for the bakery’s night shift, who need to start working at approximately 2:30 am.
Michael Capo testified as the architect for the project. He went over the floor plans and said that the facade would be styled to fit in with Botany’s 1890’s aesthetic. Comm. Eramo asked how the building could join the next one, given the existence of windows and a fire escape and Iannarella said that the building’s owner had reviewed the plans and had no objection to the application, understanding that modifications would need to be made to his property.
The commissioners viewed the proposed changes as a benefit to the Botany Village area and approved the application with little discussion.
John Rader’s application for changes to the Dunkin’ at 817-825 Clifton Avenue was carried to the September 6, 2023 meeting at the attorney’s request.
The applicant for 15 East Parkway is still working to submit plans. A motion was granted for a 90-day extension.
Sasan Imani at 32 Lorrie Lane’s application for a third-floor addition was carried to August 16.
Residents can review the agenda ahead of these meetings (the next one will be on August 16) and show up if they have concerns about proposed changes in their neighborhoods. The Board listens carefully to all objections and considers the input when evaluating the various applications.