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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Court rules in bank's favor on Forney House
MILLTOWN- A Superior Court judge's decision has brought Valley National Bank one step closer to replacing the historic Forney House with a bank branch.
A group trying to save the structure is saying the fight is not over, however.
"We were not only disappointed, but we were surprised by the decision," said Michael Shakarjian, a trustee of the John C. Evans Project.
The citizens' group sought to overturn a variance granted to the bank last year by the Milltown Zoning Board of Adjustment that would allow the bank to build a branch with a drive-through on the site of the Forney House.
Aside from efforts to save the nearly 150- year-old house on North Main Street, the group asserted in the lawsuit that allowing Valley National to bring a drive-through to the area would lessen the quality of life, and set a precedent for other businesses to request similar variances.
Judge Jessica Mayer dismissed the John C. Evans Project's claim March 26.
"There was very strong language in the opinion, in our favor," said Pete McArthur, one of Valley National's attorneys from the Pompton Plains-based firm of Azrak and Associates. "The court was appreciative of our presentation in front of the board, and of our written submissions presented to her. The court also commented that the plaintiffs, the John C. Evans group, presented nothing more than suppositions, conjecture and things like that."
Shakarjian said the bank did not provide evidence specific enough on the drive through use for the site in its testimony before the Zoning Board.
The legal criteria involved in obtaining land use variances require an applicant to prove that the project will be more beneficial than detrimental, that it will not pose a detriment to public welfare and that it does not pose a substantial inconsistency with the town's master plan.
According to Shakarjian, since the borough's master plan, composed in 1994, was revisited in 2002 with no changes made to the zoning that disallowed drive-throughs, it should be clear that such uses are inconsistent with plans for the town's growth.
The John C. Evans Project's attorney, Stuart Lieberman, of Princeton-based Lieberman and Blecher, told group members the court decision could be appealed, according to Shakarjian.
"We're looking at our options, and we're making inquiries," Shakarjian said.
Shakarjian said the group is reaching out to its membership to glean input on how to move forward in the fight to save the house.
Even if the court decision goes unchallenged, the citizens' group has another possibility for achieving its goal. 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 voiced frustration with the OCC's handling of the proceedings, saying the agency failed to follow its own regulations, and was hasty in moving toward drafting a memorandum of agreement (MOA) with the bank late last year.
The MOA has yet to be drafted, and Shakarjian said the possible involvement of the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP) would likely prove helpful in the effort to save the house.
"We think with that kind of oversight, maybe we'll have a chance for something fair," Shakarjian said.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a nonprofit organization, requested that the ACHP become involved in the Section 106 review process with the OCC after being alerted of the situation by members of the John C. Evans group, Shakarjian said. Meghan MacWilliams Baratta, of the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO), also sought input from the ACHP, according to Shakarjian.
Whether the ACHP will take an active role in the proceedings remains unclear, he said. The John C. Evans Project is not the only entity fighting to reach its goals.
In August of last year, Valley National filed a counterclaim against the citizens' group, alleging that the group 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 who are seeking to stop the sale of the house, according to Lieberman.
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 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 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.