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'Combustible' Building Materials Stall Vista Vote

Representatives of the Christian Health Care Center were asked to address a number of issues prior to a final board review.

A highly-anticipated vote on the Christian Health Care Center Vista application was pushed back after township zoners and the Wyckoff fire chief Wednesday bucked a decision by the project's designers to use cheaper building components for the proposed senior living facility.

Original plans provided by CHCC officials had called for the complex to be constructed with "non-combustible materials," but following the downsizing of the project last month that changed.

In an Oct. 19 memo obtained by Wyckoff-Franklin Lakes Patch, Christian Health Care Center Engineer Kenneth Karle intimates that cost control had been behind the applicant's decision to sidestep the more pricey non-combustible materials.

"We have studied the wood-frame construction vs. non-combustible construction and have found that the 25%-30% cost increase would result in an unacceptable increase in entry fees for the project," Karle wrote in the memo.

The project's overall size decreased — and the proposed "entry fee" was reduced — as a result of a request made at a July meeting by Zoning Board Chairman Jerome Lombardo, in which he asked the applicant to address "perceived negative impacts to the community" that could potentially arise should variances be granted for the Vista project. 

Part of that multifaceted request from the board included a reduction in the housing unit's lowest purchase price. A lower entry fee allows more people to gain access to the housing, Lombardo said in July.

At the subsequent public zoning board meeting in October, Karle revealed that the building materials had degraded, without explicitly stating they had chosen more combustible materials in order to cut costs.

Wyckoff Fire Department Chief Mike Rose in a letter to the board dated Nov. 13 expressed explicit concerns with their decision.

"The fire department is opposed to the construction change due to many factors including the increased potential of fire spread in wood frame construction building, greater level of building failures in the event of a fire condition and increased smoke potential and spread due to construction materials," Rose said.

A minor car fire in a the Vista's basement-level garage would have the potential to become a "major building fire" because of the change to "light weight wood construction," Rose wrote in the Nov. 13 memo.

"Based upon the current plans and construction type, I do not feel that we could adequately respond to and mitigate a large scale incident at this facility without considerable property destruction and/or loss of life," he wrote.

Rose refused comment Wednesday, citing his involvement in the ongoing application.

"I have great respect for the fire chief, but we have consulted any number of experts who don't share [his] opinion," said CHCC Attorney Jerry Vogel at the Wyckoff Zoning Board meeting Tuesday night. "If we meet the code and exceed the code that exists throughout the country in uses like this that should be sufficient."

The combustible building materials, however, remained the current No. 1 issue for the applicant, Lombardo insisted.

The board's expert engineer Michael Kelly added to the CHCC's to do list, saying that a number of issues remain with the revised plan. Kelly specifically noted: drainage, road, revised sanitary sewer, height calculations, questions regarding the loading area and design calculations for the water system.

Chairman Lombardo said the board wouldn't be comfortable voting on the application until the applicant had answered more questions on the exact make up of the project.

"There are just too many items that [zoning board members] need to pin down," Lombardo said.

The CHCC application is scheduled to be discussed again before the Wyckoff Zoning Board on Nov. 27 and Dec. 11 .

Have a question or news tip? Contact editor Joseph M. Gerace at Joseph.Gerace@patch.com, or find us on Facebook and Twitter. For news straight to your inbox every morning, sign up for our daily newsletter.

Gary Rabinowitz November 15, 2012 at 03:47 PM
CHCC, via its engineer Kenneth Karle, tried to sneak one by the ZB: "At the subsequent public zoning board meeting in October, Karle revealed that the building materials had degraded, without explicitly stating they had chosen more combustible materials in order to cut costs." Wipe the egg off your face, ZB. CHCC lacks all respect for you, the fine members of the Wyckoff FD and the community of Wyckoff. Fire Chief Rose has been heavily involved in this process all along. For CHCC to sneakily and vaguely say materials "degraded" without saying how is egregious bad faith and a big middle finger to Mr Rose, the ZB and the town. Dear ZB members: There's a limit here gentlemen, and we are well past it. This project has been typified from Day 1 by bad faith, multiple variances, unacceptable unit density (compared to the rest of Wyckoff), sneakiness, incompetence and now a ridiculous game of 'whack a mole' where additional new Vista problems arise for the previous issues that are addressed (allegedly & in reality not at all). This combustible materials action is a big slap in the face to one of the most rightfully respected members in our community (Chief Rose). It's past the time that you reject this ill-conceived, community-wrecking, half baked project. Not only for the project's effect on the community. No, this time, the honor of your & Chief Rose is at risk. Put CHCC in its place. By rejecting Vista, you will stand behind your Fire Chief and the will of the town. -GXR
John A. Unglert November 15, 2012 at 04:43 PM
I must stand in support of Mr. Rabinowitz's comments. Mr. GXR has given me a number of insights when I was being stupid about this project. For myself, I would urge that this Board respect the studied concerns of Chief Rose. We place much into our VOLUNTEER Fire Department and I would not wish to hear of a fireman injured due to lack of quality materials nor to see a major fire when it might have been reduced or prevented by materials. I would urge the Board to just reject the entire project, at this time, allow CHCC to devise a totally new plan and then resubmit, sometime in the future. I would conclude that there is no rush on this project and maybe after we let everyone cool down and have a reasonable plan for a reasonable project then we should have CHCC reapply. One of the things I have heard, and I am not sure of it veracity, is that the resident does not gain title to the dewelling and that upon moving out or death the dewelling reverts to CHCC. Is this correct ? - JAU
M. Terry November 15, 2012 at 05:39 PM
I was appalled to hear last night that CHCC decided against using noncombustible materials to save money. According to CHCC's attorney, because of the reduction in size of the project (which, btw, mostly affects Hawthorne rather than Wyckoff), they needed to cut costs elsewhere. The attorney's remarks brought to mind the May 2012 house fire that killed a Larchmont, NY Police chief, his wife, and two children. Here's what was reported about the cause of the fire: "Carmel Fire Chief Lipton said that the house collapsed about 10 minutes after responders arrived. He said that materials used to build the home contributed to the rate at which flames engulfed the Sullivan house. Tompkins echoed those sentiments, adding that increased flammability is a 'nationwide situation with all new construction.' More glue, presswood and vinyl—and fewer nails and sheets of plywood—make for a structure that's more likely to burn.Tompkins said that although the house complied with building codes, its modern, light construction contributed to the speed of the fire once it got inside." CHCC's attorney kept referring to the revised "stick" construction as being within or surpassing building code. Unlike this tragic situation cited above, we have a choice going forward. Shouldn't we insist on Wyckoff Fire Chief Rose's recommendations? My guess is that potential purchasers of units within Vista would opt for safety any day. Shouldn't revised construction go back to the Design Review Board?
Joseph M. Gerace (Editor) November 15, 2012 at 07:32 PM
The story M. Terry is referring to: http://southeast.patch.com/articles/investigators-continue-probe-into-cause-of-fatal-blaze-not-ruling-out-arson
Patricia Booth November 15, 2012 at 09:49 PM
I was floored Tuesday night by Mr. Vogel’s statement on switching to combustible materials to save money. Why solicit our fire chief’s recommendations if only to ignore them? In the event of a fire, elderly residents will not have the ability to react quickly. Our responders will be taxed to the max. At the October 1st meeting audience member Garrison suggested reducing ceiling heights from 9 ft. to 8 ft., the standard for most residences. He stated 9-ft. ceilings mean more money to be made because everything would need to be customized. And a 1-ft. reduction per floor would bring the height down to code. The response he received reeked of elitism. More surprises Tuesday. Mr. Kauker, our Zoning Board’s planner, stated that at 38 1/2-ft. high CHCC wouldn’t need a variance. Mr. Kauker, please take another look at Wyckoff’s building code; max allowable height is 35 ft. He was subsequently corrected, but…! When one resident spoke of the Mountain Avenue traffic problems when CHCC shift changes coincide with school runs, our board seemed surprised despite having the benefit of traffic expert, Gary Dean, all this time. Change of site plan, change of building materials… Enough already! I agree with M. Terry. This project should go back to the Design Review Board. Better yet, our Zoning Board needs to get some gumption and deny the variances. Ridgewood’s board did it with the Valley Hospital expansion plan and the sky hasn’t fallen.
MeerAveResident November 16, 2012 at 12:22 AM
Suppose the electrical inspector came to see the work on your new garage door opener. He finds that you have a lawn mower full of gasoline in the garage, and he says, "I don't care what the electrical code says, I think you need an explosion-proof garage door opener for another $10,000. This is dangerous." Or to take M. Terry's example, suppose the Fire Chief tells your builder that your second-floor addition could burn up like the house in Connecticut last Christmas. You have to use steel studs even though stick construction is ALLOWED in a single-family home in Wyckoff? Well, at the very least, you'd call it "Job-killing government regulation." You'd also ask, why is the personal judgement of a valued department-head of the Township allowed to trump Wyckoff and national construction codes on a matter that those codes explicitly cover? Are you allowing your desire to keep Vista out of your backyard .... N.I.M.B.Y. .... to trump your usual rugged-individualism?
John A. Unglert November 16, 2012 at 12:49 AM
I would find hard to believe that the "judement" is personal. Chief Rose and all of the WFD are very highly trained. WFD has the highest ISO rating possible for an all volunteer fire department. I am also sure that Chief Rose is aware of the fire codes for Wyckoff, The State Of NJ and National. I am also sure he did not come to his conclusion lightly, nor alone. Cheif Rose knows the equipment he has available and what he can do with it. Thus I would say the Chief Rose's report would be a very considered and thoughtful expression of his cocners, based upon the information he was given and the comments made. This whole project has become very sensitive to many people. The process has been long and loud. I again suggest that the project be redesigned and reconsidered and brought back to the Board in a new light with cooler heads on all sides.
dontwastemytime November 16, 2012 at 03:27 PM
Just build it and be done with it.
M. Terry November 16, 2012 at 09:24 PM
N.I.M.B.Y.?? O.M.G., MeerAveResident, you couldn't be more wrong about my concerns. Having knowledge of the tragic fires in Carmel and Connecticut (thank you for citing the latter), you can be absolutely certain that, given the choice, I would opt for the "steel studs even though stick construction is ALLOWED." The safety of my family "trumps" any judgments or decisions made by government officials (especially when their regulations have been diluted to cover all construction in the country -- from houses in northern Maine to those in Southern California). One size doesn't fit all, really. The key word is choice. Wyckoff has a choice here and now -- our representatives can require CHCC to use construction materials that do not scrimp on safety, or overlook the consequences of CHCC's proposed cost-cutting measures. This particular issue is not about objecting to a senior development in our backyard (the inherently beneficial use has already been established), or government regulation (WE are the government, after all), or about killing jobs (jobs will be created whether or not the project is built safely), or about the professional judgment of a Township department head. Rather, it is about whether our Township makes a choice to gamble with the safety of Vista's 258 families, staff, visitors, first responders. In my mind, that issue trumps anyone's "usual rugged individualism."

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