All Scott Katz wanted was to add a five-foot addition and some minor improvements to his Bloomfield Street townhouse. Instead, he got a first-hand lesson in the vast labyrinth that property owners must navigate in order to get permission from the city to build in Hoboken. After $70,000 in fees and bills, unanimous approval before the Zoning Board of Adjustment, and then months more of requirements after that vote, Katz still found himself at a dead end, forbidden from moving forward with construction over a technicality.
Local developers have long complained about astronomical costs, long waits, and arbitrary rulings when seeking project approval from the local city Zoning Board. Those types of burdens fall harder on small property owners like Katz, who are often required to seek variances for something as simple as adding a patio.
For Katz, the experience of being stuck in what he called “proverbial Zoning Hell” was bad enough to give up on Hoboken altogether. After 14 years in the city, he sold his house at the end of July and is in the process of moving to Monmouth County with his wife and step-daughters.
Making the best of a bad lot
Katz first moved into his three-story townhouse at 221 Bloomfield St. in 2006, but he did not try to expand the structure until early last year. Through his work bringing the massive Roman numeral sculpture to Pier A Park ahead of Super Bowl XLVIII, Katz met Hoboken architect John Nastasi, who agreed to design his addition.
According to Katz, the extra five and a half feet of length he hoped to add to the back of his house did not violate any of the city’s zoning rules.
“The simple math said there was no way I had to go in front of the board,” said Katz.
“One-word email responses were billed by the quarterly hour.”—Scott Katz
Applications for nonconforming lots, which constitute an estimated 55 percent of Hoboken, have been a major contributor to the long backlog of cases before the Zoning Board. That backlog was bad enough that the City Council moved earlier this year to allow alterations to nonconforming structures to skip the Zoning Board as long as, like Katz’s project, they met all the other requirements for their zone. Katz would not have had to appear before the board if this had been changed earlier, but he would still have needed other permission for what he wanted to do.
Just making sure
Since he was already required to go before the Zoning Board, Katz said, he added a rooftop coverage variance to his application “just to be exceedingly conservative” because he was moving two air conditioners onto an eight-foot-high bulkhead on his roof.
“Nobody could tell us if the bulkhead and the roof together form your total roof coverage or if it’s just the roof,” he said, “so we applied for a variance so that however you interpret it, it doesn’t matter.”
Thus began the dizzying process of preparing for a Zoning Board hearing. In addition to submitting an application, Katz had to hire a lawyer and professional planner, prepare architectural drawings, pay for a survey of his property, and place $1,000 in an escrow account to be drawn upon by the city zoning professionals.
Stuck on the bulkhead
Katz had his day before the Zoning Board on Oct. 14, 2014, five and a half months after he submitted his application. The hearing went well. After less than 25 minutes of testimony, Katz received a unanimous 9-0 approval from the Zoning Board. None of the three “quality of life” witnesses he had brought to testify on his behalf were even asked to speak.
According to a transcript of the meeting, Zoning Board Attorney Dennis Galvin remarked, “This is the quickest determination that we had in my tenure with the board.”
But that was only part of what Katz had to do in order to add to his building.
The real trouble started three months later, when Zoning Secretary Patricia Carcone told Katz’s lawyer that he hadn’t updated his blueprints to reflect the correct location of the condenser units for his air conditioning.
From the very beginning of the zoning process, Katz had sought to place the condensers, which originally were in his backyard but would be displaced by the addition, on the 8-foot-tall bulkhead on his roof. Now Eileen Banyra, the city’s Zoning Board planner, insisted that they be placed on the roof deck next to the bulkhead.
(Banyra did not respond to multiple requests for comment via phone and email).
The Zoning Board resolution approving Katz’s project included a condition that “the condensers are to be moved to the roof,” but ‘roof’ is not defined as either the bulkhead or the deck. Katz’s zoning application and blueprints both indicated that the condensers would go on the bulkhead. In his testimony before the board, Katz’s professional planner, Paul Grygiel, also clearly stated that the condensers would go on the bulkhead.
According to Katz, in the Architectural Review Board meeting for his project on Sept. 8, 2014, the month before the Zoning Board hearing, he and Banyra discussed adding a low wall on top of the bulkhead to hide the condensers.
In an Oct. 8 review letter to the Zoning Board, Banyra herself even stated that Katz’s application sought “a condenser on top of the bulkhead.”
Contrary to this evidence, in a February, 2015 email, Banyra cited a single statement made by Katz’s architect during the zoning hearing. While describing the project, Nastasi said, “Ms. Banyra has asked us to consider taking the condensers to get them off the ground and put them on the roof on top here.” She interpreted this as meaning the deck rather than the bulkhead.
No video exists of the meeting, but Katz said Nastasi was pointing to his exhibits, which showed the condensers on the bulkhead, when he made the statement. “He just used the word ‘roof’ while pointing to the proper space,” said Katz.
Paying the price
Despite already receiving construction permits and his First Certificate of Zoning Compliance, Katz was given two choices in a Feb. 9 email from Banyra—move the condenser where she wanted it or reapply to the Zoning Board.
“While the plan did show [the condensers] on top of the bulkhead,” she wrote, “we don’t consider the top of bulkhead a roof (by ordinance definition or practice) and no one specifically addressed at the meeting and it requires a variance to height.”
According to Katz, relocating the condensers would have meant losing 30 percent of the space on his roof deck, not to mention undercutting its entire purpose as a quiet zone for recreation.
“You tell me how fun it is sitting a foot from a condenser,” he said.
Katz also said he was billed for any phone calls or emails Banyra and Jeff Marsden, the Zoning Board engineer, made in relation to his project.
“One-word email responses were billed by the quarterly hour,” he said, “so I couldn’t even talk to anybody about it because I would get an email that would say ‘no’ with a bill to it.”
According to Katz, Banyra’s billable hours included the time it took her to drive the 78 miles between her home in New Paltz, N.Y. and Hoboken for meetings on his project, all at a rate of $145 per hour. Marsden also billed for mileage and tolls incurred on his commute to Hoboken, said Katz. He said that for example, he’d get billed three hours for a one-hour meeting in town, and preparations were on a separate bill.
“If they work for the city, why should I be paying for them to get to the city?” he asked.
Carcone, the Zoning Board secretary, said she does not believe Banyra’s billable hours included travel time. Katz did not have an itemized bill showing that travel was included, but he said that according to his calculations, that’s the only way the bills for meetings could be as high as they were.
The final straw came on April 21, 2015, when, four hours before a scheduled meeting with Katz and his lawyer to discuss 221 Bloomfield St., Banyra sent an email saying that Katz’s escrow account was “in arrears” and that she could not meet unless he brought a check covering all of his outstanding bills plus $300 for that day’s meeting.
By that point, Katz says he had spent over $70,000 on the zoning process. “I had dipped into my account enough that even if I got approval, I no longer had the money to do the addition,” he said.
The meeting with Banyra never happened, and Katz put his house on the market soon after.
Friends like these
Prior to his zoning ordeal, Katz had a long history of supporting Mayor Dawn Zimmer and her political allies. In particular, he had campaigned for Jen Giattino, the councilwoman from his former ward, and considered her a friend. He was also the president of the committee that organized events in Hoboken surrounding the 2014 Super Bowl in the Meadowlands.
While he insists he didn’t want any special favors due to this history, Katz said he asked for help or advice when the process threw up roadblocks.
According to Katz, Giattino called Dennis Galvin, the Zoning Board attorney, on his behalf, but nothing came of it. “Dennis’s response was that Eileen says [the condenser] needs to go here and that’s the way it’s going to be and I was billed for that phone call,” he said.
“How can there be no oversight?” Katz asked. “How can nobody be able to stop this woman Eileen from making these decisions that she doesn’t have the power to make because [my project] passed 9-0?”
City representatives did not respond to questions concerning Katz’s Zoning Board experience. In the past, though, Zimmer has insisted that she has no influence over the actions of the Hoboken Zoning Board or its professionals, who are hired independently by the board. Katz finds that claim questionable, noting that four of the Zoning Board’s current members have or will run with Zimmer’s endorsement as candidates in past or upcoming local elections for other positions.
“They can say they’re separate, but that’s not really accurate,” he said.
Upon moving away, Katz recently submitted a long letter to local media noting that he has supported the administration, but felt somewhat betrayed when no one could help him understand what was going on better. He noted that he has seen other examples of having difficulties with the city over simple things. During the Super Bowl, he said, he ran into numerous unnecessary roadblocks and “incompetence” when organizing local events, although he declined to give specifics. “I wrote a scathing report,” he said in a letter. “I was asked not to send it anywhere, so I didn’t…The final two months leading up to the Super Bowl showed me just how the public sector and specifically this current administration are incapable of working alongside volunteer efforts...They still had my vote, just not my money or resources.”
In an interview last week, Katz said the upshot is, “Nothing’s easy with these bureaucrats. In trying to head off all potential problems, you make it harder for people doing it the right way.”
While he admits to feeling betrayed, Katz said he is moving on and excited to start a new life far from the mile-square city.
While Katz’s experience with the Zoning Board is unique, it highlights aspects of the process that some others have complained about in Hoboken. Tony Soares, a commercial real estate agent and former councilman and Zoning Board member, said that some retailers and restaurateurs have trouble bringing new businesses into Hoboken because variances are so often required and the current board is suspicious of commercial development.
“Under this current Zoning Board and this current administration, the [Pilsener Haus] Biergarten would probably never have been approved,” said Soares. “It would have been…‘Oh, is going to be noisy? What’s it going to be? We don’t want an outdoor bar. It’s too big. It’s not Hoboken scale. There’s not enough parking.’ ”
The fundamental problem, according to Soares, is that two consecutive Hoboken mayors have failed to codify the city’s 2004 master plan, preserving a set of zoning rules that are widely admitted to be outdated.
Property owners seeking to build projects that are in keeping with the master plan but forbidden by the zoning, like a residential building in the city’s northwestern fringe, are thus forced to seek variances from the Zoning Board, building the backlog and slowing down the process for everyone.
Some recent projects, such as a proposed residential development with a bowling alley and climbing gym in the northwest section of town, were defeated at the zoning level, drawing criticism from those who saw them as a unique addition to town.
The controversy may arise out of Hoboken’s nature as a popular, dense mile-square city where a desire to build on one’s property or start a hip new business may conflict with an administration’s desire to preserve open space and exercise caution about overdevelopment.
Zimmer and her spokesman declined to answer questions for this story, referring them to zoning officials.
Carlo Davis may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.