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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November 6 2008

Economy aside, bank still set on Forney site
Ad offered house for $1 if buyer would relocate

Though Valley National Bank is feeling the squeeze of the economic crisis, it will continue its efforts to raze the historic Forney Clinic building in Milltown and replace it with a bank branch, according to bank attorney Pete McArthur.

"I can tell you that they are pursuing it just as zealously as they have in the past," said McArthur, of Pompton Plains-based Azrak & Associates. "Their treatment of this matter has not ceased."

According to the bank's Web site, its third-quarter earnings were down 90 percent, to 3 cents per share, as compared to 29 cents per share in last year's third quarter. The losses came from preferred stock holdings of government-seized mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and totaled $44.1 million after taxes.

A report from McClatchy-Tribune Information Services quoted Gerald Lipkin, the bank's CEO, saying the loss is sizable, but it will not break the bank.

"... It will not have a significant impact on operations or strategic decisions," Lipkin was quoted as saying.

He went on to say the bank might sell some of its 100 branch buildings. By the end of the year, the bank may release an announcement on deals pertaining to some of its properties.

Milltown resident Michael Shakarjian, a trustee of the John C. Evans Project, which is committed to saving the Forney house, said his group is unsure of how much of an impact the bank's financial losses would have on its drive to pursue the North Main Street building. He noted that the bank applied for government bailout funds and was approved.

Like Valley's officials, the citizens group is expressing no thoughts of giving up.

"We intend to continue to do whatever we can," Shakarjian said.

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 from 1907 until the 1970s. During many of those years, it was run by Dr. Norman C. Forney Sr., the town's first surgeon.

In March 2007, the borough Zoning Board of Adjustment granted approval for the bank to build a branch, complete with drive-through facilities, on the site. Proponents of saving the nearly 150-year-old Forney house and clinic organized to form the John C. Evans Project soon after. The group has engaged in a continuing fight to keep the house standing. Its efforts to have the zoning board decision overturned in state Superior Court proved unsuccessful, but the group subsequently filed an appeal of the court ruling with the New Jersey Appellate Division.

Valley National did not sit idly by during the process. The bank filed a counterclaim in August 2007, alleging that the citizens' group interfered with its economic advantage, as well as with its rights under the sale contract between the bank and Dr. Bhudev Sharma, who owns the property. The counterclaim is still pending, with no trial date set.

Stuart Lieberman, attorney for the John C. Evans Project, said the bank's counterclaim was an attempt to intimidate the group into silence. He called the claim a SLAPP, or strategic lawsuit against public participation. Such suits involve corporations or developers bringing litigation against citizens' groups that take an oppositional stance to their plans.

The bank will have to prove malicious intent to interfere on the part of the citizens.

Sharma, who operates a medical practice within the building, has also filed a lawsuit against members of the John C. Evans Project.

After the citizens' group filed its appeal, McArthur moved successfully to have it dismissed, due to the fact that the counterclaim filed by Valley National was ongoing in county courts.

According to Shakarjian, a letter from the courts after the initial ruling to uphold the zoning board decision gave the plaintiffs only a certain number of days to appeal, which made it seem as if they could do so within that timeframe. Though the group's recent efforts to appeal have been thwarted, Shakarjian said they are only on hold.

Amid all the litigation, other types of developments have arisen. Throughout the process, the federal Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) has been involved, as its approval is needed for Valley to follow through with its plans for the new branch.

As part of that decision, the federal agency conducts a Section 106 review process. Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act requires federal agencies to consider the possible impacts of their projects on historic places.

John C. Evans group members and Ron Emrich of Preservation New Jersey blasted the OCC for its handling of the process, saying it did not follow regulations, and moved hastily and without much consideration toward a memorandum of agreement (MOA).

After a July meeting held by the OCC that proved unsatisfactory for those trying to save the Forney House, a State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) representative contacted the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP), an independent federal organization, to get involved. The National Trust for Historic Preservation was also involved in the process.

Shakarjian said he did not think it prudent for the OCC to have held the meeting before lawsuits were resolved.

"We thought that was a really bad policy, because we didn't think the public, or anyone advocating for the house, would be able to speak freely," Shakarjian said.

He said the OCC case manager restricted commentary from Lieberman, but allowed bank attorneys to speak. The result of that meeting was that another conference would be held, when a new draft of the MOA would be discussed. No documentation was sent out for review by involved parties until 9 p.m. the night before, according to Shakarjian.

Despite issues preservationists may have had with the handling of the meeting, they were happy with one new provision of the MOA one that required Valley to advertise the house itself for sale for $1 so it can be moved to another location.

The purchaser would be required to keep the house up to standard federal regulations set for historic places, as the house has been deemed eligible for both the state and national registers of historic places. The ad, which ran in the Star-Ledger, said any purchaser must move the house no later than Nov. 22.

"If the Forney House is not removed by Nov. 22, 2008, the house will be immediately demolished," the ad read.

According to McArthur, the bank received "a couple of brief inquiries," but no bids in response to the ad, which ran twice a week for four weeks. Later in the ad, it said that if no offers were received by Oct. 24, the house would be "immediately demolished."

As of press time, the house still stood, but when Shakarjian recently questioned bank officials and others about the timeline of its demise, no one provided an answer. His inquiries arose from having received an offer from "This Old House" magazine for a monthly feature entitled "Save This Old House."

Keith Pandolfi, associate editor of the magazine, made some calls of his own, to find out whether the Forney House would still be standing in order to be featured in "Save This Old House" in the magazine's January issue. His deadline has passed.

In an Oct. 14 e-mail addressed to Shakarjian, Mayor Gloria Bradford, Council President Randy Farkas and others, McArthur made clear his feelings about the inquiry from Pandolfi.

"Please make no mistake that Valley is not interested, nor will consent to the timeframes of Mr. Pandolfi's magazine," McArthur wrote. "This is yet another lame attempt to delay this matter more than it already has been."

McArthur said the bank has a demolition permit for the house, but noted there are other conditions that must be met before the building is razed.