A judge didn’t decide immediately Tuesday whether Montclair’s Planning Board will have to take more public testimony on the Lackawanna Plaza redevelopment it approved in 2019. FILE PHOTO
A judge didn’t decide immediately Tuesday whether Montclair’s Planning Board will have to take more public testimony on the Lackawanna Plaza redevelopment it approved in 2019. FILE PHOTO
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By JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
winters@montclairlocal.news

Attorneys argued in court Tuesday whether the Lackawanna Plaza redevelopment plan approved by the Montclair Planning Board in 2019 should go back to the board for more public comment. 

A group of residents and a neighboring business are calling for more testimony and public input on the effects of downsizing a supermarket planned for the site, and concerning a county easement consisting of a grassy knoll. 

The plaintiffs asked Essex County Superior Court Judge Keith E. Lynott to reconsider his earlier dismissal of their case filed in April 2019 against the Planning Board. The plaintiffs are 200 residents, an advocacy group calling itself A Better Lackawanna and neighboring property owner One Greenwood, which shares an access easement into the back of Lackawanna Plaza.

The group argued there were procedural problems with the Planning Board’s approval, saying the public’s input was stifled and that testimony and facts were lacking and, in some cases, not presented at all.

Lynott did not rule on the reconsideration request May 11 and will issue a ruling it at a later date, he said. 

The existing plans, approved by the Planning Board in spring of 2019, include 154 housing units, a supermarket and 111,726 square feet of office retail space at the historical site in the Fourth Ward, which has been without a supermarket since the Pathmark at Lackawanna there closed in 2015.

Planning Board members granted developers relief to create 459 parking spots for the entire site, instead of the 833 spaces required by township zoning. To make way for the parking for the supermarket, the plan also includes razing the mall, which since the 1980s has encased the Lackawanna Terminal waiting platforms and original stanchions. 

Pinnacle Cos. and its partner on the project, Hampshire Cos., which presented the plans throughout 16 Planning Board hearings, sold the Lackawanna property to Montclair resident David Placek in February. Placek has said he most likely will file a new application with the Planning Board.

In his dismissal of the case in March, Lynott wrote that the board gave all parties and the public a chance to be heard, and that the board reached a decision based in substantial facts and evidence of record. He said it was outside of the court’s authority to reconsider the issues of the application.

On April 2, the group filed the motion to reconsider, claiming the court overlooked two key issues, one pertaining to the last-minute announcement that Lidl would be the supermarket tenant and the supermarket would be downsized to 29,000 square feet, the other a county easement on the other side of Grove Street that the plaintiffs claim was “buried” in the site plans and that the developers failed to bring up in testimony.

The plaintiffs’ attorney, Jay Rice, argued that the court, when rendering its decision, overlooked a breakdown in the public process, claiming the Planning Board denied the public more information and an opportunity to question the developers on the night of the vote when they announced that Lidl would be the grocer tenant. That also involved a change in size from 47,000 square feet to 29,000 feet, which would mean a change in location that could impact the number and location of loading docks, truck egress and ingress, dumpster locations and parking — all of which would affect neighboring properties, including One Greenwood. 

Pinnacle’s and Hampshire’s attorney, Tom Trautner, told the judge that the board’s approval runs with the land, not the tenant, and that tenants do change.

“They would never be able to get approvals unless they had all their tenants lined up and then they would have to come back with every tenant change,” Trautner said. 

Rice also contends that the a county easement containing a green space on the other side of Grove Street was not disclosed during the hearings or in the developers’ application. The apartments would be built over the green space, according to the plans.

Trautner said that easement was identified in surveys sent to the planning department and board in December 2017. Due to the easement, the project will also be heard by the county planning board, he said. 

Placek has retained redevelopment attorney Anne Babineau with Wilentz, Goldman & Spitzer. Babineau has a long history in redevelopment, including an arts-focused redevelopment in Woodbridge and a planned community in Verona on the site of the former Essex County Hospital Center.