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.
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Advocates forge ahead in preservation efforts
The group filed a notice of appeal last week to challenge a state Superior Court decision that upheld the Milltown Zoning Board of Adjustment's approval for Valley National Bank to build a branch and drive-through where the house now stands on North Main Street.
"We feel that our position is correct," the group's attorney, Stuart Lieberman, said. "I'm confident that our position is meritorious - and that is that the zoning in the town prohibits these drive-throughs. We're hopeful we'll do better at the appellate stage."
Valley National's attorneys could not be reached for comment.
While the Evans Project has a goal of saving the 142-year-old Forney House, its members have also taken issue with a drivethrough facility affecting the quality of life for borough residents, and setting a precedent for other businesses to be granted use variances for such purposes. They also assert that borough officials, in the town's master plan, explicitly prohibited drive-through businesses of any kind within the town's B-1, or business zone.
"We are concerned that neither the zoning board resolution nor the judge's trial decision accurately reflect our understanding of the regulations in the B-1 zone," Evans Project member Michael Shakarjian said.
While the zoning board stated in its resolution granting the variance to Valley National that it was correcting an omission in the zoning law by allowing the drive-through, that statement is not backed up with wording of the master plan, according to Shakarjian.
In her March 26 decision, Superior Court Judge Jessica Mayer supported the bank's testimony regarding changes in the world of banking that dictate further use of drive-through facilities. She indicated her agreement with Valley National regarding their assertions that the drivethrough would not create any more noise, pollution or traffic problems than the bank would on its own.
"Consequently, based on the testimony, the board determined that the drafters of the borough's master plan did not, and could not, conceive of such a change regarding the manner of banking transactions at the time of the most recent master plan reexamination," Mayer wrote.
Drafted in 1994, the borough's master plan was revisited in 2002. The portions dealing with drive-through facilities were not changed.
"It seems to be very explicit to me, and that's what I would call deliberate," Shakarjian said.
Shakarjian said drive-through facilities at banks were not new in 1994, and were even less so in 2002. While other aspects of banking may have changed, he said, drivethrough banking is not an innovation.
Lieberman, of Princeton-based Lieberman and Blecher, said the bank did not provide testimony that it met the criteria for a use variance to allow the drive-through.
Another argument Lieberman had was that the zoning board did not allow for at least two residents to offer comments regarding the application. He also took issue with the zoning board's refusal to consider information relating to the historical significance of the Forney House, pointing out that it is eligible for inclusion under the state and national registers of historic places.
Mayer said in her decision that it is acceptable for a board to place limitations on comment when it is repetitious or irrelevant, adding that the individuals in question failed to cross-examine the bank's experts. Regarding the house's historical significance, Mayer said it was appropriate for the zoning board to allow that aspect of the decision to be made by the proper entities.
Another recent development regarding the structure's history was its inclusion on Preservation New Jersey's (PNJ) "10Most Endangered Historic Sites" list for 2008.
"The loss of this important component of Milltown's historic Main Street for a suburban-style branch bank makes no sense," according to PNJ. "Milltown does not need an additional drive-through bank, and we would all be incurring needless environmental costs of demolition and new construction."
Before Valley National can proceed with its plans, it must obtain approval from the federal Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC). Members of the Evans Project have expressed dissatisfaction with the OCC's handling of the Section 106 process, saying the agency failed to follow its own regulations, and moved hastily in efforts to draft a memorandum of agreement (MOA) with the bank late last year.
The MOA has not been drafted, however, and the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP) has since gotten involved. Advocates for the Forney House said they are hoping the ACHP will be helpful in ensuring that the Section 106 process proceeds fairly.
In terms of the appeal, Lieberman said it will likely be a lengthy procedure.
"I think it should take at least six months from beginning to end," Lieberman said. "This isn't going to happen overnight."
Valley National is not required to halt any activities related to the project because of the appeal. However, even if it receives OCC approval in the meantime, it would be unlikely that the bank would move forward with construction until the case is over, since it would have to tear down whatever is built if it loses, Lieberman said.
In August of last year, Valley National filed a counterclaim against the citizens' group, alleging that it has interfered with its economic advantage, as well as with its rights under the sale contract the bank has with the current owner of the house, Dr. Bhudev Sharma.
Sharma, who operates a medical practice within the building, has also filed a lawsuit against members of the group that is seeking to stop the sale of the house, according to Lieberman.
The Forney House was built in the 1860s 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 from1907 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 said the house is in such a state of disrepair it cannot be preserved, the John C. Evans Project aims to find a purchaser that would be interested in saving the structure.
Shakarjian said the group is seeking support from the community to continue in efforts to save the Forney House. Though the group received donations from citizens and a couple of borough businesses, the appeal process will prove costly, he said.
Dedicating even a fraction of one's economic stimulus check to the cause would be a great way to show support, Shakarjian said.
The John C. Evans Project can be contacted via e-mail at Evansforney@aol.com