Citing a need to boost the Montclair Fire Department’s ranks to pre-pandemic numbers, Chief John Herrmann came before the Township Council on Tuesday night, Jan. 24, with a request to increase the department’s budget by more than 17 percent.

The chief’s call for the hiring of 13 additional firefighters, a training officer and an office worker  would bring the number of fire personnel to 91, two more than the department employed before the town’s fiscal realities were upended by COVID-19.

“We've been consistent in our request for staffing for years,” Herrmann said, adding that more firefighters create safer conditions for the entire force.

Herrmann made his remarks at the beginning of a marathon council session, with nearly three hours devoted to budget presentations by several department heads, and the rest to a litany of ordinances. 

Among them, the council voted to approve a new version of an ordinance that will allow the construction of accessory dwelling units. The ordinance was revised after input from the Planning Board and will still require another vote before it becomes official.

As the council moves toward creating a budget for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1, it heard on Tuesday night from officials pitching their budgets from different parts of the municipal bureaucracy, from the Water Bureau and Sewer Utility to the legal department to the clerk’s office. No department head asked for a greater increase than Herrmann.

Montclair’s chief financial officer, Padmaja Rao, said the additional personnel would increase the Fire Department’s yearly budget from nearly $10.1 million to about $11.8 million. Much of the cost for any additional positions would go to pension and health benefits, Rao said.

Accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, began as an experiment, chiefly in California, and have now taken hold in several states, including Washington, Minnesota and New York. In New Jersey, both Princeton and Maplewood have adopted measures similar to the one Montclair is contemplating, though only a few homeowners seized on it to modify their properties. As of about a year ago, Princeton had 18 ADUs, while Maplewood had two.

The concept provides a new alternative for homeowners who might want to create another living space on their property. Leading advocates across the country, including Ann Lippel, president of Montclair Gateway to Aging in Place, envision ADUs as a creative way to allow seniors to downsize or supplement a fixed income, or simply remain near their children and grandchildren. The units can also provide quarters for a nurse or home health aide.

“ADUs preserve a way of life,” Lippel has said. “People can stay in their own homes, maintain their house of worship and keep their community – how it should be.” 

Lori Price Abrams, one of the leading proponents on the council, along with Councilor-at-Large Peter Yacobellis, has described ADUs as important to Montclair’s identity, a way of honoring tradition and diversity. Among other benefits, the units can provide an alternative for a range of town employees who may have been priced out by the housing market.

“This will help in an organic way, helping with the diversity and affordability of Montclair,” Price Abrams said.

After shuttling between the Township Council and the Montclair Planning Board, the latest iteration of the ordinance includes provisions preventing larger multifamily homes from adding ADUs that would trigger rent-control restrictions. 

The new ordinance says that ADUs can only be added to one- and two-family homes. Gone is the stipulation that caps the number of people who can live in an ADU, but there are size requirements. ADUs have to be between 300 and 800 square feet, and there can be no more than three rooms, not including a kitchen and bathroom.

Rentals less than six months are not permitted. But specific language that could apply to older parents and perhaps returning college students gives homeowners the ability to allow loved ones to live in ADUs rent free and without time constraints. In those instances, no lease is required.

The fine print of the ordinance addresses concerns of neighbors. Depending on the distance between homes, an ADU cannot have windows facing a neighbor’s home or yard.