By Ron Leir
You could say the deck was stacked against them before they got to the table.
First, the new owners of 612 Belgrove Drive were mistakenly told by the town construction office that their newly acquired property was in an R-2 zone, and that it could accommodate a 2-family home, which was their intent.
Then, after they closed on the property and they applied for permits to build, the town informed them, oops, forget about that 2-family; that property is zoned for a medical office/1-family use so you’ll need to apply for a use variance.
Now the die was cast: Belgrove Drive residents, led by two politically-connected neighbors, lined up in earnest against the owner’s proposed split-level duplex with high steps and a garage in front and persuaded the seven members of the Zoning Board of Adjustment to shoot it down, unanimously.
All the zoning commissioners said they felt for the plight of the owners but still concluded that the proposed duplex with garage out front would clash with the existing neighborhood.
Kearny attorney Gary Bennett, who advocated for principal owner/applicant Maria Domingues, an optometrist, said he’d confer with his client on a possible appeal to the state Superior Court.
Afterwards, Domingues, a Lyndhurst-based optometrist with offices at 348 Ridge Road, said: “I feel that for the most part, the board did what they could. But I also feel that, unfortunately, because of a lot of political pressure by the councilwoman [Carol Jean Doyle] and the mayor’s aide [Lyla DeCastro] who went knocking on my neighbors’ doors, I don’t know if I got a fair hearing. It seems to me there was a preconceived notion because of friendships and relationships with board members [who were] maybe not basing my case on the testimony that was presented.”
The testimony elicited by Bennett from his witnesses indicated that the new owners of 612 Belgrove wanted to demolish a small single family home that had also served as a dental office until the dentist’s retirement and build a two-family, side-by-side split level duplex with three master bedrooms and a garage to accommodate Domingues and her sister.
“I loved the location,” Domingues said. “It had a big lot for a big house.”
At least twice before closing on the property in July 2012, family members were told by town construction office employees the property was zoned for R-2 use – and presented with a zoning certificate reinforcing that claim.
It wasn’t until late September 2012 – after the family had engaged a Lyndhurst architect for the project – that Domingues’ brother-in-law, Ricardo Esteves, was told he couldn’t build a 2-family house. “When they told me that, I was very confused,” Esteves said.
Bennett reasoned that the site, a 10,600 square foot lot, was “particularly suited to an R-2 use, being larger than most of the adjacent properties, and [would] not represent introduction of a new nonconforming use.” Further, he said, it would “preserve the character of the neighborhood, maintain and improve the quality of housing, and protect against infill of the residential neighborhood.”
But neighbors weren’t having any of that.
Calling Belgrove Drive a “special street” in Kearny, Councilwoman Doyle said the block has “no duplexes” and that most homes there are “Victorians.” She said that given that a member of the family was an experienced contractor, she found it “curious” that the owners would “go back to the construction office several times and ask the same questions two, three, four times.”
DeCastro said “many homes” on Belgrove “have beautiful large lots with one-family homes. That’s how it should remain.” When it was noted by one of Bennett’s experts that a building directly across from the former dental office was a multi-family, De- Castro said it’s been used for that purpose “since the 1930s – it’s not new construction.”
Deirdre Sullivan said she was owner of a huge “pagoda” home on Belgrove. “It’s a one-family home,” she said. “I’d like to see it stay that way.” Other neighbors, including James Lawless, George Fernandez and Paul Shalvoy, all agreed with that central premise.
In summary, Bennett asked the board to show some leniency to the owners, who, he said, purchased the property for $225,000 with the expectation that they’d be able to put up a 2-family home. “A mistake was made,” he added. “That happens. But it precludes them from doing what they want without your permission.
“These people aren’t investors,” Bennett continued. “They want to live in the property. And, he noted, they did their best not to overextend the footprint of the house, by providing for “only 23% lot coverage. … This isn’t Clinton Ave.; it’s not Grand Place – it’s a little different.”
As the board voted, member Sebastian Viscuso seemed to set the tone when he said: “I totally feel for these people because I have in my hand a document signed by [Town Construction Official] Michael Martello stating that [612 Belgrove] is in an R-2 zone. They went under the assumption they could build a 2-family home. They spent a lot of money. But I’d prefer to see the garage flipflopped.”
Board member Cecilia Lindenfelser said she, too, felt “empathy” for the applicants but she said she wasn’t convinced that 612 Belgrove was “the only place you could go” to build the duplex. “And there’s no basis to say it benefits the neighborhood [because] it doesn’t fit in. And I’m concerned about setting a precedent,” inviting other property owners to follow suit.
“Kearny is becoming dense,” said board member James Hill. “We have unique neighborhoods and we need to preserve those neighborhoods.”
Board Vice Chairman Tony Capiti said that he, too, sympathized with the applicants “but I can’t see changing the [property’s] use because you’re setting a precedent.” Board member Janice Barton found herself of two minds on the issue. While she objected to the duplex’s design – “I don’t like to see two front doors and steps going up that high” – she told the applicants: “You got bad information and something should be done about it.”
Board member Joseph Slavik found himself befuddled. “I don’t know what to say,” he said.
But Board Chairman Richard Konopka didn’t hesitate when he observed that the applicants’ duplex would be “a beautiful home but not good for Belgrove Drive. Putting this up would not be conforming to the neighborhood.”
By a 4-3 margin, the board voted to reject the application. Konopka, Capiti, Lindenfelser and Hill opposed the project, while Barton, Slavik and Viscuso favored it.
Domingues said she was mulling over what, if anything, to do with the property. “I do have the option of building a one-family house – a nice modern home in the style I want – it’s not going to look like a ranch or Victorian home. I’m also considering putting my professional office there. And if I do that, I work six days a week, so I want the neighbors to know that plenty of parking on the street will be taken up by my patients. I have to weigh my options. … If I do build a home, I will build a massive home, within the limits for a 1-family home. I am not selling that house.”
Last week, Martello was on vacation but Assistant Construction Official Anthony Chisari said that when the applicants brought 612 Belgrove, a “typographical error” was to blame for the change to “the previous R-2 template on the certificate of occupancy.
“That’s where we went downhill and it snowballed from there,” Chisari said.
Asked how that sort of error could be prevented in future, Chisari said: “It’s just a matter of scrutinizing the paperwork.”