CRANFORD, NJ — The local planning board unanimously gave its final approval for the construction of three, 50-foot, four-story apartment buildings on the Birchwood property at its April 4 meeting, ending a decade long fight over the area, which lies on the Kenilworth border.
Despite agreement between the board and developer on several conditions, the issue of $96,000 in sewer-lining repair remained unresolved. The matter involved a 2013 court order obtained by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection requiring $96,000 in repair on the site’s 1,300 feet of sewer line.
The document, which the township engineer Bill Masol said he had never seen before, was submitted into evidence by resident Rita LaBrutto. Masol announced at the end of the meeting that he and his supervisor would review the information.
The redevelopment project, delayed by 11 years by Mount Laurel “builder’s remedy” lawsuits and negotiations, will comprise 225 units — including 34 set aside for the township’s Mount Laurel obligation — that sit atop parking on the 16-acre site.
In addition to ground level parking underneath each of the three buildings, other parking is included in the plan for a total of 436 spaces.
The initial proposal for the project came out of a 2007 “builder’s remedy lawsuit,” in which the former developer, Cranford Development Associates, sued the township for not meeting its court-ordered subsidized-housing requirements.
A state Superior Court ruled in favor of the developers and ordered Cranford’s master plan to include 360 units at the Birchwood Avenue site. The township responded by purchasing the property, later selling it for $18.5 million in order to welcome Birchwood Developers Associates, the developer that would comply with the municipality’s objectives.
The site fronts Birchwood Avenue, with the Cranford Health and Extended Care rehabilitation facility to the southeast. The rear of the property backs up to single family dwellings on Wadsworth Terrace and will be buffered by a 175-foot setback of arborvitae green giants, a type of evergreen.
The trees generated much discussion among Wadsworth Terrace residents at the meeting.
Although the redevelopment plan calls for a minimum of 277, 6-foot trees to be planted on the edge of property line, a discussion about considering larger trees took precedence.
Wadsworth resident Joe Logiudice and LaBrutto both requested taller trees instead of the chosen arborvitae. This request was rejected.
The arborvitae will grow approximately 2 feet per year up to 50 to 60 feet, landscape architect Chris Karach said in his testimony. While larger trees exist, developer Tony DiGiovanni said: “The redevelopment plan calls for a 6-foot tree minimum,” with which he is complying.
“So, what we are saying is that if we had to plant a tree that would protect the residents over time, the best tree placed would be on our property, at a height of 6 foot,” DiGiovanni continued. “If something is 6 feet in front of me, I will not see the 50-foot structure.”
However, DiGiovanni did agree to a request from Logiudice to extend the tree-maintenance agreement beyond a two-year bond to five years.
Another point of contention was the traffic study, which planning board Vice Chairwoman Bobbi Anderson said was lacking.
“I do think it was a mistake not to include some of the study on Bloomingdale Avenue,” she said, due to the number of people who use it to access the Garden State Parkway. Bloomingdale intersects with Birchwood Avenue at its southeast terminus. Bloomingdale leads into Elizabeth Avenue, which connects with North Avenue and GSP exit 137. According to the traffic study presented by Elizabeth Dolan, of engineering consulting firm Dolan & Dean, tracking this area would only add a few seconds of delay.
She noted that the overall amount of traffic, with added delayed seconds from the Bloomingdale intersection, does not warrant additional traffic signals or improvements.
“If the board wishes us to track, we will. But from my perspective, I don’t think there will be significant findings, because we have already routed 52 and 65 trips through Orange Avenue and found a modest addition of eight seconds of delay,” she said.
Prior to the board’s vote, planning board Chairwoman Kathleen Murray and board member Lynda Feder commended the developer on its project and presentation. Although troubled by the traffic study, Murray noted that the presentation was thorough.
Feder agreed, describing the application as well presented.
“I just think we need to go through the list of conditions and things you have agreed to along the way, but I think it’s a great project and look forward to seeing it through,” Feder said.