Birchwood meeting expected to draw big crowd at town hall

CRANFORD – Those objecting to the Birchwood development will have the chance to voice their opinion tonight at a New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection public hearing held at town hall.

The township received notice about the non-advertised special hearing in mid-December, and since then word spread quickly about the event which begins at 6 p.m. The hearing is expected to bring out those opposed to the construction of 360 apartment units, which includes 60 “affordable” housing units and a five-story parking garage.

The letter sent to the township clearly outlined that the hearing is specifically related to the application made by S. Hekemian to the NJDEP, Division of Land Use Regulation, for permitting and approvals involving the Flood Hazard Area Control Act. The developer is seeking permit approval to build in an area that floods.

Township officials and a grassroots group that organized to fight the development are expected to come out tonight to fight the apartment complex which they maintain will cause additional flooding in the area.

The township has been embroiled in a number of lawsuits over the years with Hekemian in an effort to stop the developer from moving forward based on a builders remedy lawsuit to do so.

So far the township has not made much headway legally because of the affordable housing act, which allows developers to build apartments and other multi-unit housing projects as long as they include a certain percentage of affordable housing units.

Because the township had not fulfilled this obligation, it left Cranford wide open to a lawsuit by a developer such as Hekemian who wished to purchase land and build on it. Not that the road to development has been easy for this company.

In fact, Hekemian has filed civil lawsuits against the township for not complying with the law and has won those legal battles so far. Nevertheless, the township continues to stand solidly behind the less than 100 residents living in the Birchwood Avenue area that are objecting to an apartment complex being build in the residential area comprised of single family homes.

Meanwhile the township has been racking up legal bills to the tune of over $1 million to date to fight the project. In the end, all of the township taxpayers are footing the bill for this expenditure, which shows no sign of letting up.

In fact, new Mayor Andy Kalnins said in comments made after taking the oath of office at the annual New Years Day reorganization that the Township Committee was committed to fighting the project.

“We are coming to a critical point in our Birchwood builder’s remedy lawsuit,” he said, pointing out that the DEP hearing set for tonight was the time “to have our story heard.” He also mentioned that it was ridiculous to build in an environmentally sensitive flood zone.”
At the same time, the mayor said, the township was preparing to file yet another appeal in the case, which he said would give Cranford the opportunity “to prove that the project itself is not right.”

The same laws that allowed Hekemian to file a builders remedy case are now being debated by state officials with no end in sight.
In December housing advocates went to court to force the state to stop delays in firming up affordable housing laws after a decade of delays.

The State Supreme Court recently gave the New Jersey Council on Affordable Housing until Feb. 26 to write new rules that would allow affordable housing construction to start back up in New
Jersey.

Without new rules, which are 14 years overdue, towns and developers will continue to remain in the dark about their affordable housing obligations. Not that all towns understand the complex ratio used to figure out what a municipality’s actual affordable housing allocation should be.

Gov. Chris Christie tried to eliminate the program but has been unsuccessful so far. Should the state manage to get rid of the affordable housing program, legislators have said they will replace it with something that is easier to understand for municipalities.
So far there has been no discussion by legislators on when the issue could be addressed or even if it will.

Residents fighting Birchwood have objected at such a deep level to the affordable housing project that they have written more than 1,000 letters, many to the DEP, which has the final say in whether the apartment complex will be built in an area that many claim will back up floodwaters into the residential area surrounding the complex.

But while those living near the Birchwood development site have said they experienced flooding during Tropical Storm Irene in 2011, records indicate that there were no reports of flooding in the area during superstorm Sandy. Floodwaters did block many streets, but homes were not impacted as those opposing the development have indicated.

Residents maintain that they are concerned construction in that area might make this particular area more prone to higher levels of floodwater.