CRANFORD — Anyone who knows former mayor Dan Aschenbach will attest to the fact he is dedicated to finding a solution to the township’s flooding woes. That path, while full of fits and starts over the years, has not altered his focus at all.
In the fall of 1999 when Tropical Storm Floyd hit the township, this former mayor was on a break from serving on the Township Committee and was not sure he would run again if given the opportunity.
But on that day, when hundreds of residents in the northeast quadrant of the township were taken out of their homes in anything that would float, he was hit with the reality of what flooding was doing to his town.
Aschenbach stood off to the side of the command center set up on Central Avenue, his face gray with concern and worry and made a decision that would become a 15-year quest.
It was that moment, in the early pre-dawn hours after the storm passed, that he decided the only way to kick off that quest would be to run again for a seat on the governing body. It clearly was the only way he would be able to bring flood relief to the community that he loved.
With his eye squarely on this goal, he won back that seat and, true to his word, worked doggedly along with others in the coming year to get the state and federal government to help with this project.
Although the township made strides in getting the first phases of the flood project started, Aschenbach knew Cranford’s flooding problems had its roots much further up the river and it would take a regional effort to even begin to resolve those issues.
After Tropical Storm Irene hit the township with a vengeance in 2011, damaging thousands of homes and businesses, Aschenbach, now mayor once more, helped launch the Mayors Council on Rahway River Watershed Flood Control.
In the ensuing years, this council of mayors from municipalities affected by river flooding, worked together to find solutions to the regional impact of flooding. While they are getting close to developing a South Mountain Regional Detention Basin that would store storm water during peak storm events, there are environmental issues lurking that could stall the project.
Back home in Cranford, yet another flooding issue threatened, one Aschenbach knew could throw a wrench in all the work that was being done upstream by the mayor’s council on flooding: The Birchwood development project.
“I served on the Cranford governing body during a period that spanned parts of three decades and I believe Cranford will have trouble withstanding the impact of another storm, and extreme weather patterns may bring such a storm sooner or later,” he said.
Perhaps that is why he is so concerned about any development in the northeast section of the township.
The Birchwood project would see 360 apartments in two buildings, along with a parking garage built adjacent to a flood fringe area, the result of a builder’s remedy lawsuit brought against the township four years ago by Cranford Development Associates. This includes 52 affordable housing units.
CDA, a subsidiary of S. Hekemian, has managed so far to overcome any legal hurdles the township has thrown in its path and at this point in time, is awaiting New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection permit approval; the only thing preventing construction from moving forward.
Recently the NJDEP held a hearing in Cranford to get input from residents impacted by floodwaters since 1999. This hearing drew hundreds of residents, many of whom stepped to the podium to implore this state office to reconsider issuing approvals for a project they believed could add to the flooding woes this area has already endured.
This site has been the subject of considerable controversy and litigation over the last five years, costing the township in excess of $1.5 million to date. Lurking on a back burner is yet another court appeal that Cranford filed after the courts gave CDA the green light to build the project.
Cranford officials were determined to block this project, no matter the legal cost. Aschenbach feels the same, and while he did not step to the microphone at the NJDEP hearing to say so, he focused his efforts on convincing Superior Court Judge Lisa Crystal that the township’s appeal to block the court order allowing the project to move forward is a valid one. Crystal is considering the appeal now and it is expected a decision will be handed down soon.
The former governing body member explained in his letter to Crystal that ironically the mayors council encountered resistance to the South Mountain Regional Detention Basin due to environmental concerns.
“There is a view that we will be disrupting a natural environment in South Mountain with the storage project so we may protect downstream residents in Cranford, only then to allow new over development such as Birchwood that puts the community back where it was before the flood control project is even completed,” he said in his letter to Crystal, adding “this is a very important and serious point.”
Aschenbach pointed out the NJDEP has to look at the Birchwood project differently than it looks at development in towns that are not “flood ravaged.”
“Several blocks from Birchwood, the municipal complex was severely damaged in 2011 during Tropical Storm Irene, the PSE&G substation was flooded causing a six-day power outage for thousands of people in Cranford, Westfield, Garwood and Fanwood,” he added, noting the result was millions of dollars in damages to homes and businesses.
The former mayor said his concern is that no one, not the state or courts, can assure anyone what will happen after Birchwood is developed. Aschenbach’s fear is based on his knowledge of Cranford flooding, which he pointed out led him to believe “the existing bad situation will just become more severe.”
“The court does have a problem, however. The court ruled Cranford did not meet the state affordable housing obligation and it is obligated to comply with the fair housing law. There is no question Cranford has that obligation; however, development of this nature will create much more harm than good,” he explained.
Aschenbach strongly believes the township was brought unfairly into builder’s remedy litigation because it was perceived by the court they were not trying to fulfill their affordable housing obligation, when they actually were doing so.
“The 1995, 2001 and 2008 master plan assessments stated the community did not have any room to develop affordable housing. Any new housing for that matter,” he explained, arguing that for more than 20 years that was the planning perspective of elected officials because that was what planning professionals advised.
Despite this, Aschenbach said, Cranford constructed two senior citizen centers, made zoning changes for an assisted living facility and group homes and for over 20 years spent $20 million in rehabilitation of homes for low and moderate income families.
Furthermore, the former mayor explained, from 1984 to 2005 the township used Community Development Block funds to rehab 155 low- and moderate-income homes until Cranford’s program was merged with the Union County program.
“Cranford was one of only five communities in Union County that had its own housing program,” Aschenbach said, telling Crystal that “these units should have been counted” in the township’s affordable housing obligation and they were not.
Aschenbach also cited the fact that Riverfront, the new development project on South Avenue in the downtown area that has 35 affordable housing units, was yet another example the township showed “good faith” in fulfilling its affordable housing obligation.
Flash forward to 2014 and this former governing body member told Crystal the court should reject the Birchwood development plan because of the flood hazard overdevelopment presents to the township.
“By rejecting Birchwood, it provides a powerful message to the environmental community that the court and state DEP understands the flooding issue and that projects such as the South Mountain detention basin should be given a chance to provide the protection needed,” he said in his letter to Crystal.
Aschenbach further suggested the township be allowed to work with the state and county to use open space funding to purchase the Birchwood site to create Cranford Casino Woodlands.
“Joining this property with the existing township conservation center and wooded area of the Verizon property represents over 55 acres of wetlands and flood plain,” he said.
Aschenbach asked the court to also allow Cranford the opportunity to develop a housing plan minus Birchwood’s projected 52 units of affordable housing.
Finally, the head of the mayor’s council on flooding urged Crystal to understand that the Birchwood overdevelopment fit the view of the state’s leading environmentalists “that we aren’t serious about storm water mitigation.”
“Cranford did demonstrate good faith in meeting a moral obligation to provide low- and moderate-income units. The punishment under the affordable housing law that takes authority away from the Planning Board and permits such overdevelopment that will only harm residents is not justice,” Aschenbach told Crystal, adding “there is no getting away from this fact.”