This website is dedicated to the Michelin Plant on Ford Avenue, the Evans Family, Dr Forney and his sons, who they have given so much to the town of Milltown and for playing an important role in forming the town we love and respect. Also dedication goes to the remaining historical sites that are remaining that we hold dear to our heart, also to the ones that we have lost to the senseless disregard of our town history and to what makes this town so special, the residents that live and work here. We need to stop the senseless destruction of our historical landmarks and Milltown's history now before its to late and is lost forever.

Talking about our Town History is one Thing- Saving it is Another

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February 21 2008

Forney House future in hands of the court
Two lawsuits pending as citizens group appeals to save house

As the ongoing fight over the fate of the Forney House in Milltown headed to court last week, the group hoping to save the historic structure had a new, larger entity in its corner.

The Forney House, on North Main Street, Milltown, is slated to be demolished so that a bank branch can be built in its place. However, an appeal to reverse that decision is pending in state Superior Court.
Even if a judge rules to allow demolition of the approximately 150-year-old house to make way for a bank, members of the John C. Evans Project, which is working to save the North Main Street house, could realize success with the help of the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP).

"They don't get involved all the time. In this particular case, I guess they deem this as something worthy of being considered. We are obviously cautiously optimistic," said Stuart Lieberman, the Princeton-based attorney working for the John C. Evans Project.

The group is appealing the March 2007 decision by the Milltown Zoning Board of Adjustment that would allow the Forney House building to be demolished to make way for a Valley National Bank branch.

On Friday, state Superior Court Judge Jessica Mayer, sitting in New Brunswick, reserved decision on whether to uphold the board's approval of the bank branch. While there is no word on when a decision will be issued, Lieberman said he thinks it could take a few weeks.

"This case is not just about saving an old house on Main Street. It goes beyond that," said Michael Shakarjian, a trustee of the John C. Evans Project.

A borough ordinance does not allow for drive-throughs in the town's B-1, or business, zone. As part of the approval, the zoning board granted Valley National Bank a variance to allow them to construct a drive-through at the proposed branch.

"We feel that if this was not challenged, it could open the doors for more drive-throughs in the B-1 zone," Shakarjian said. "We feel that weakening this prohibition could have a dramatic negative effect on our town."

Attorneys for Valley National Bank declined to comment on the case.

Even if the approval is upheld in court, members of the John C. Evans group may still have a chance to preserve the Forney House, as approval from the federal Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) is necessary before the bank can proceed with its plans.

Members of the John C. Evans group expressed dissatisfaction with the OCC in its handling of the matter, saying the agency was not following its own regulations, and was hasty in moving toward drafting a memorandum of agreement (MOA) with the bank late last year.

However, the MOA has yet to be drafted, and Shakarjian said the ACHP will now be involved in the necessary Section 106 review process, which appraises possible effects of actions taken on historic sites.

"That means the MOA process has been put on hold," Shakarjian said.

While the citizens' group was mobilizing to achieve its goals, others involved in the battle were doing the same.

In August, Valley National Bank filed a counterclaim against the John C. Evans Project, stating that the group has interfered with its economic advantage, as well as with its rights under the sale contract that the bank has with the current owner of the Forney House building, Dr. Bhudev Sharma.

"In my view, it's a merit less suit," Lieberman said. "You don't use the court as a club to intimidate and beat somebody down so they'll be afraid to participate in the process."

Lieberman characterized the counterclaim as a SLAPP, or strategic lawsuit against public participation, suit. Some suits are termed as such when they involve corporations or developers bringing litigation against citizens' groups that take an oppositional stance to their plans, according to Lieberman.

Valley National's counterclaim has yet to be heard in court.

And according to Lieberman, there is another new legal angle. He said Sharma has now filed a lawsuit against members of the group who are seeking to stop the sale of the house.

Sharma declined to comment on the matter.

Although Shakarjian had requested that the ACHP get involved in the matter in the past, the federal entity advised him to continue working with the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) and the OCC, he said. It was not until Sharma filed suit against two members of the citizens' group that Meghan Mac Williams Baratta of the SHPO reached out to ACHP to intervene, he said.

"When she heard that, that was finally the straw that broke the camel's back," Shakarjian said. "[The ACHP] has truly gotten involved, and that's a good thing."

The Forney House was built in the mid- to late-1800s by the Evans family, whose son served as Milltown's first mayor. It was converted into a medical facility by John C. Evans and operated as such from 1907 until the 1970s. During many of those years, it was run by Dr. Norman C. Forney Sr., the town's first surgeon.

While Sharma and representatives of Valley National have asserted that the house is in such a state of disrepair that it cannot be preserved, the John C. Evans Project aims to find a purchaser that would be interested in saving the structure.

Members of the John C. Evans Project have thus far covered the costs of their efforts by using their own funds, as well as donations from the community, they said. The group is requesting contributions from others who share their goal, in order to cover the anticipated additional $15,000 cost of the court process. The group can be e-mailed at evansforney@