By Jaimie Julia Winters

The planning board approved a subdivision to a single-family lot on Washington Avenue Monday night, contending it would be keeping with the “rhythm” of the neighborhood, which is filled with similar-sized lots.

The 100-by-150 foot lot would be split down the middle, with a new single-family house being built on the eastern side of the lot while retaining and upgrading the original house on the western side.

Washington Street subdivision
Plans for the subdivision with both houses.

Property owner Sam Debnam, 97, wants to sell half of his lot to developer Mitchell MacGregor, who plans to build the single-family house on the site, while Debnam remains in his home on the western side. Debnam contends that the lot was actually two lots that had been merged before he purchased the property more than 60 years ago. His plan was to sell off half the property if he ever needed the money. Last year, a reverse mortgage on his home ran out, he told planning board members on Aug. 13.

In February, the original application, which called for the lots to be split into parcels of 45 feet and 55 feet in width, was denied by the planning board after months of testimony and circulation of a petition by Debnam’s son asking the board to grant its approval to “allow his father to age in place.” The application was denied by a 4-4 vote.

The new application calls for the fronts of both lots to be 50 feet in width and a new garage to be built behind the older home, with the new home retaining the original garage. The houses would share the existing driveway, said architect John Guadagnoli. Each lot would be over the 6,000-square-foot size required.

New plans call for a sun room on the western side of the existing home to be removed and the new home to be built allowing for a 10-foot setback, 13 feet on the western side and about nine feet on the eastern side where six feet are required by code, eliminating the need for a side-yard and building-width variances, said the applicant’s attorney Alan Trembulak.

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The attorney argued that the application had changed enough with the new lot sizes and the elimination of two variances to allow it to be heard again, to which the board agreed.
The applicant needed the planning board’s approval on the subdivision due to current land-use regulations that call for 60-foot frontages in the area.

Peter Steck, former Montclair planner, presented a map focusing on 143 properties in the Washington Street area, of which 68 percent are below the 60-foot front width requirement; most were 50 feet or less. In 1987, a master plan revision created the 60-foot requirement and also then required a variance to subdivide a lot, not an easier-to-obtain waiver, he said.

He argued that the proposed lots sizes and the proportion of the homes to the lots reflect the density and character of the neighborhood.

The architect said the house will be similar to one he built at 28 Gray Street in Montclair, a three-bedroom, three-bath, 2,367 square foot neo-Victorian. He said prospective buyers at the time of the Gray Street sale described it as “the home you grew up in.” Debnam’s current home will be upgraded and a sun room will be added to the back of the home.

Washington Street subdivision
Plans for the new home.

Chairman John Wynn said the plan lends a sense of consistency and “rhythm” to the neighborhood.

“I never understood the 60-foot requirement in this neighborhood and in other neighborhoods in town,” he said. “I don’t see a detriment to the neighborhood to add to another family to the block.”

Board member Martin Schwartz said he backed the proposal reluctantly, concerned it could set a precedent for more subdivision and density proposals. In this case he said, the plan reflected the neighborhood.

Earlier in the year, the town planner recommended that area lot-size requirements be reduced to 50-foot frontages, but the planning board voted down the change.