Thursday, September 30, 2010

Update: 806 Bloomfield Lawsuit with Respect to Zoning- Hearing Decision Pending

Update 9/30/2010: Both parties were in court this morning, before the Honarable Judge Bernadette DeCastro. Both sides presented their case and the judge will advise her decision in about three weeks.

Update 9/29/2010: There is a hearing is open to all before Judge Bernadette DeCastro J.S.C., Room 806 595 Newark Ave, Jersey City tomorrow September 30th, 2010 starting at 9 am. Alfonso G. Carrino of Brunelleschi Construction initially was unsure whether or not the hearing was open to the public but it is. He also met with Hoboken Patch so I am sure they will have a story on this soon. Sorry for the late notice but I just found out today.

Update 8/27/2010: I added some photos of the back down below in the article to hopefully give readers a better idea of the dimensions.  Thanks for the reader suggestion.

Original Post 8/26/2010: Here is a another lawsuit with the City of Hoboken that is a little close to home. I live at 807 Garden Street and have been observing a renovation project over at 806 Bloomfield for the last two years. I have been wondering for over a year as to why the project seemed stalled. As Condo President for my building I was fielding questions from other owners in my condo building as to what was happening with that site. I was made aware of the project when I was properly noticed by mail and the head builder of the project reached out to me to discuss if I had any concerns. I didn't have any complaints at the time from my perspective since the house being renovated was sorely in need of repair and not in compliance with the 60% lot coverage rule that applies to our zoning area. They asked what type of fence we would like to see on out property and I was impressed with their spirit of cooperation.

The previous owners had a building that was unsightly as well as having a dilapidated shed that was adjacent to our property.I couldn't wait for it to be knocked down as I thought it was both unsightly and structurally compromised. The builder Alfonso Carrino who is a partner in Brunelleschi Construction who is based out of Jersey City, walked me through the plans at the time and from my perspective I was happy that the building was being renovated and that my views would ultimately improve when I looked out my back bedroom window. I did note that the building was going from a three floor to a four floor building as the basement was dug out and made into a unit.

Here are some photos to give you a visual of the project.......

The Ugly (Original Look):

806 Bloomfield originally

The Bad (Stalled Project):

View of the back of the stalled project from 807 Garden Street

The Good (New Cornice and Facade):

New facade at 806 Bloomfield
New cornice at 806 Bloomfield
To continue to the rest of the story click read more below:

The Builder Lays out their Issues with Case:

On Sunday August  22,  one of the developers on this project took me to their headquarters office in Jersey City and provided me with more information as to why the project has been stalled and the history behind why they are now suing the City of Hoboken as the party responsible (in their opinion) for unnecessarily and illegally delaying this project.

The builder Alfonso Carrino shared his frustration with me on the delays and that they felt Hoboken City Attorney Doug Bern has been "stonewalling" them in the process after they were denied by the ZB back in 2009. They stressed that they would still like to avoid trial with the City but they have not heard back from the city attorney with what is acceptable. They felt they have been pushed into a lawsuit and that the City was trying to outspend them. The builder also issued his concern over some of the comments that were based on aesthetics. One example he cited was Mike Novak referring to the back wall as a "Soviet looking" structure as the block used to create the expanded walls is a dark gray color. Alfonso stated to me those types of comments show that in his opinion the decision was arbitrary and capricious as he as a builder needs to know what will be acceptable before hand or not. He also said to me several times during out meeting that they had the plans approved and the zoning certificate taken away and were given permission to build and that the time for the neighbor to complain had passed. He feels they should have been allowed to continue with the project and that the stop work order was wrong given that they had "done everything by the book".

On a personal note, the stress of this project apparently led to heart attack by Alfonso Carrino last year. They had to do some emergency financing to keep this project afloat after almost going into default and at this point it is just about them minimizing their losses and making this whole.

These were the main points that were discussed in the interview. They then gave me additional documentation and a tour of one of their renovations in Jersey City. From what I saw they do excellent restoration work. I would consider living in one of their buildings if the situation was right.

Collage of Brunelleschi Construction's Award winning M650 Flats Building in Jersey City:

Here is a sampling of the Brunelleschi Construction's work at the M650 Building in Jersey City

Case Timeline:

Here is a timeline of significant developments in the case:
  • August 1, 2006: Bloomberg Eight is formed as an LLC (consisting of Brunelleschi Construction)
  • October 25, 2007: Zoning Application submitted.
  • November 5, 2007: Ginger Buonfiglio issues First Certificate of Zoning Complaince.
  • July 15, 2008: Notification to neighbors.
  • August 8, 2008: Conceptual plans approved by Construction Code Office.
  • September 2, 2008: Detailed plans approved by Construction Code Office.  
  • October 15, 2008: Clean out work completed. 
  • January 6, 2009: Construction Permits Approved by Construction Code Office.
  • March 2009: Demo work completed. 
  • March 25-30, 2009: Cinderblock work in back completed (4 stories).
  • April 1, 2009: Ginger Buonfiglio revokes Zoning Complaince.
  • October 2, 2009: Partial Stop Work Order.
  • August18, October 20, December 15, 2009: Builder met before Zoning Board. Variances denied 7-0.
  • January 19, 2009: Zoning Board Memorializes Resolution to Deny Variances.
  • September 30, 2010: Court date scheduled.
Zoning cases like this are judged on their individual case by case basis. The merits of variances are based on determining negatives and positives of the project. Here were the main points of both sides.

Case Against Variances:

Benjamin Keith Brown of 808 Bloomfield was the only resident to speak out against the variances and brought up the following points:
  • Sunlight disrupted by expansion of  the back so that all stories are 6o feet back.*
  • Also, air circulation (breeze) is reduced as well.*
  • Aesthetic of the gray cinder block not desirable.
  • Out of character with other houses.
  • Loses ability to garden.
  • Other neighbor upgraded facade without an extension in the back.
  • "It is kind of hard to barbecue when you don't have sun in your face".
 * The building plans would now be a structure 40 feet high by 60 feet long. Surrounding buildings on Bloomfield have first floors that go out that far but not nearly as much on the higher floors.

Here are some photos that hopefully give you a better idea of the issue raised by 808 Bloomfield about the back:
The wall next to 808 Bloomfield (left)
The wall next to 804 Bloomfield (right)
Rear addition goes up full four stories and extends back more than other units
Note: the developer stated that 804 Bloomfield had no issue with their plans but they had a conflict and could not make the meeting.

Kantowitz, the attorney for Brown questioned Spatz and got him to state for the record:
  • Units increasing 30% in size
  • Extra bedrooms.
  • Intensity of dwelling increased.
Kantowitz's closing argumnent:
  • Expanding building to 4 stories requires a D variance so burden for variances is substantial.
  • Increasing density.
  • Non-conforming structure creates canyon-like effect.
  • No features were presented about the back of building (like a new cornice).
  • No connection to front improvement with back.
  • Burden of proof not met to grant variances as no substantial public good demonstrated.

Case For Variances:

The planner David Spatz on behalf of builder testified that:
  • Building height consistent with adjacent buildings.
  • No spacial changes to the front.
  • Elimination of non-conforming structures like the rear shed.
  • No change in density.
  • Reduced lot coverage.
  • No change in the number of units.
  • Improvement to facade in front.
The attorney Mr. O'Connor for the builder summarized:
  • They were within the prescribed lot coverage.
  • This plan will reduce non-conformities of the back yard.
  • Only a single property owner in protest.
  • The alleged intensification is not an increase in the density of the use.

The Decision:

The Board reviewed the evidence on December 15, 2010 and called the vote. The vote went 7-0 against the variances.

Note: I reached out to current Zoning Chair Tony Soares and he stated he could not comment on the matter since it is now under litigation. I also reached out to former board member Mike Novak and I did not get a return call but it would probably be the same response understandably. To see the rationale of the Zoning Board member's decision go to the ZB meeting transcript below.

Next Step: 

The next step is most likely is a court date in September 30, 2010 unless something else develops.I will update this post as I have more information.

My comment: This will ultimately be decided to the courts so my opinion doesn't matter. However, I can't help be sympathetic to the plight of the developers regardless if you agree with that the plans they provided were in conformity with the area or not. It is a cautionary tale about embarking on a construction project in Hoboken. Even if the developer in this case is determined not to be in the right side of the law by the judge, the uncertainty of zoning board decisions could put a damper on such renovations in the future where buildings are preserved. Perhaps instead of having zoning laws that require a variance every time someone does a renovation expansion due to the 5 foot front yard setback stipulation, the Zoning code could be changed to clearly define what dimensions and other specification are acceptable to avoid the additional steps and time it takes to go before the board. I think rulings like this could encourage developers to do tear downs to avoid zoning issues going forward. Keep in mind that the Zoning Official and the Zoning Board just rule on the zoning laws as they exist. The zoning ordinances are the responsibility of the City Council. This case involved the actions of the previous zoning official and had nothing to do with the current one.

Regardless of the lawsuit I just want to see resolution on this issue and a completed site that is in conformity with the neighborhood. I am tired of dealing with the feral cats that hang out on our back patio now due to the openness of the uncompleted construction site. I don't plan on covering many zoning cases like this too closely but I hope this illustrates to my readers the process and potential pitfalls to renovations. Buyer and renovator beware.

Here are some supporting documents for the case:

The complaint and the transcript from the ZB hearing are the most informative.

Original Zoning Certificate

Letter Suggesting Revocation of Zoning Certificate if no Public Meeting Conducted

Complaint filed on behalf of the builder: 

City's Response to complaint from Doug Bern:

Transcript from the Zoning Board Meeting:

Legal Brief: