Westfield Planning Board Continues Deliberation Over 'Watcher' House Subdivision

Attorney Robert Simon reviews site plans for 657 Boulevard with civil engineer Bob Gazzale. Credits: Michael Bruchert
Attorney James Foerst addresses the board in his opening statements, dubbing the home a "celebrity" case. Credits: Michael Bruchert
Residents of Boulevard and Carleton Road listen intently to the testimonies given on Monday night. Credits: Michael Bruchert

WESTFIELD, NJ – Despite compelling arguments from attorneys, a professional planner, civil engineer and Westfield residents alike, no decision was made by the planning board on Monday night with regard to a request for subdivision of 657 Boulevard, the home now infamously known as the "Watcher House."

The applicant is seeking to subdivide the property into two lots, remove the existing dwelling and construct two new homes on the property. For this to happen, the board would need to grant variance relief from sections 11.07E2 and 11.07E3 of the Land Use Ordinance.

Off by only a few feet, the two “new lots” would propose lot frontages and widths of 67.40 feet and 67.60 feet, where a minimum of 70 feet is required for both dimensions. The lots would also measure at 9,638 and 9,667 square feet respectively, where 10,000 square feet is the required minimum within 143 feet of the front property line.

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A continuation of Monday’s hearings will resume on Dec. 5, where a second objector will testify along with expert witnesses and inevitably beckon a rebuttal from James Foerst, the attorney representing the applicant and homeowner Derek Broaddus.

The first half of hearings, originally scheduled for Oct. 5, proceeded after briefly addressing a nine-page letter from an objector, Robert Simon (on behalf of Ms. Catherine Cronin-North), which had been sent to the board one month prior. The board’s attorney, Diane Dabulas, deemed the letter had little merit and the application would continue to be reviewed by the board.

The first testimony, that of civil engineer Robert Gazzale, revealed that the application’s plans seek to remove four of six “street trees” along the front of the property in order to accommodate two driveways. Suggestion to preserve the trees and instead meander driveways through the trees were made by chairman Vince Wilt.

Because there are no plans or blueprints for buildings, Gazzale assured the board that detached or rear-facing garages were indeed feasible, as opposed to front-facing garages that aren’t seen very often on Boulevard. When questioned by Simon, Gazzale also stated that the current 2,265 square feet of building coverage could expand to 4,000 square feet over two lots if approved.

It was also noted that the property in question, Block 4108 Lot 14, was originally surveyed in 2014 at less than 20,000 square feet, but re-surveyed by the applicant’s engineer at 20,018 square feet. Town Planner Don Sammet could not confirm which number was correct.

The appeal continued with a second testimony by professional planner John McDonough, who provided comparative analysis of the surrounding homes in the RS-10 zone along with a near identical court case out of the Township of Warren.

“If I were to describe this area, the surrounding area of the property, it’s a charming area. It is a nice, co-mingled mix of older, pre-war homes and also newer, contemporary homes,” McDonough said. “On the north side of Boulevard, we currently have ten homes between Park Street and Washington Street. On the south side, the opposite side of the street, we have 13 homes. So to add what I would call an eleventh home on the street does not cause an overcrowded appearance or throw off the balance of the street in one way or another.”

Residents challenged McDonough’s testimony, pointing out that Park Street is angled, allowing more space for homes on the south side of Boulevard. However, McDonough confirmed that the lots would agree with bulk requirements of RS-10 zone lots and be 96 percent compliant with regards to the Land Use Ordinance.

In citing a 1988 case, Kaufmann vs. The Planning Board of the Township of Warren, McDonough shared a Supreme Court of New Jersey ruling that two compatibly sized lots was, “a better alternative than one oversized lot.” A quote from the court ruling stating that two lots would “improve neighborhood harmony” was met by laughter from residents in attendance of the meeting.

McDonough admitted his comparative analysis was done in a 200-foot radius surrounding the lot, but shared the fact that five of 22 homes fronting on Boulevard were non-conforming (or deficient) in lot width. Those same lots were also deficient in lot area.

While Foerst did not clarify if a C1 variance for hardship (inability to sell the home) or C2 variance for balancing were sought,. McDonough made it clear that a C2 variance would be much more applicable due to substantial benefits outweighing detriments in this case.

If approved, the two new lots would be the smallest lots on this strip of the north side of Boulevard. It was noted that if the application were denied, but overturned in a court of law, the applicant would not need to return to the planning board and no conditions would be applied.

With no plans to call additional expert witnesses yet ready to make a rebuttal, Foerst said he believes both supporters and opponents of the application will make themselves heard when the case continues. Confident in two nearly compliant lots and the board’s obligation to uphold the law, Foerst said that members' “hands are tied.”

As decided by the board, a continuation of the appeal will resume on Dec. 5.

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