CRANFORD – Township residents came out in force to a public hearing last week to try and stop the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection from issuing permits to a developer trying to build an apartment complex adjacent to a flood hazard area on Birchwood Avenue.
Several hundred residents and officials jammed council chambers, and the tension in the room was almost palatable prior at the start of the hearing.
In fact, so many residents turned out for the 6 p.m. NJDEP hearing, the spillover crowd had to be moved to another room where the meeting was set up to be remotely transmitted.
Outside council chambers, more than 30 people waited patiently in a line that snaked from the back entrance through a long municipal building hallway to a table where those wishing to address the DEP panel of representatives were required to register.
The hearing was held in Cranford so DEP representatives could obtain additional information from the public prior to coming to a final decision regarding permits needed by the developer, Cranford Development Associates. The permits are required before CDA can move forward with the planned construction of 360 apartments and a parking garage.
The project has received court approval to move forward as a result of a builder’s remedy lawsuit brought against the township four years ago. However, the township is fighting the project despite court rulings that continue to side with the developer in this matter.
CDA, a subsidiary of S. Hekemian, is seeking permitting and approvals from the DEP Division of Land Use for several permits, including building on the fringe of a flood hazard area and bordering freshwater wetlands.
The entire site, however, is not in a flood hazard area. The developer also needs another permit to raise a 300-foot stretch of Birchwood Avenue in front of the apartment complex for drainage purposes.
The site has been the subject of considerable controversy and litigation over the last five years, costing the township and taxpayers in excess of $1.5 million to date. The site is located on the eastern side of the township, between Orange and Bloomingdale avenues, bordering neighboring Kenilworth.
Rick Riley, DEP Bureau Manager of Inland Regulation, moderated the hearing, flanked by several other DEP representatives. Riley made it clear from the start that the hearing would continue until everyone wishing to speak was heard. He also gave notice that the DEP’s intention for holding the hearing was neutral.
“This is neither an adversarial nor contested hearing,” he told the audience, creating a loud buzz of discussion among those crowded into council chambers.
The only time CDA spoke on behalf of the project was when their project engineer, Mike Stipple, provided a brief description about the project and the DEP permitting they would be required to move forward.
He pointed out the surrounding wetlands would not be invaded by the construction of the apartment complex divided into two buildings, pointing out an underground detention basin would be built to ensure any storm water overflow would be contained.
The township’s consulting engineer, Leo Coakley of Hatch McDonald Engineering, explained the site of the Birchwood development project was in a “flood prone” area.
“The township’s concern is there will be an increase in flood levels on the adjacent properties,” he said, mentioning that while the project may not be directly in the floodway, it is right up against it.
“Our concern is that flooding will happen,” Coakley said, adding that there was information in the CDA application pointing directly to this but added, “you have to dig a little to find it.”
The first to approach the podium was Cranford’s new mayor, Andy Kalnins, who pointed out Cranford is known as the “Venice of New Jersey.” He was also quite honest in admitting the town has had “a love-hate relationship with the river.”
“We have had four major flooding events in Cranford,” he said, pointing specifically to Tropical Storm Floyd in 1999 and Tropical Storm Irene in 2011, which devastated more than 2,000 residences.
“Since the ‘70s we have been working to reduce flooding. What this project does is push everything to the extreme,” Kalnins said, adding “this project flies in the face of everything we have done the last 40 years.”
Township Committee member Tom Hannen, who served as mayor last year and was a victim of Tropical Storm Irene, told the panel they would be hearing from many citizens who were flood victims.
“This project is not sound,” Hannen told the DEP panel, noting citizens were skeptical because the project has been “changed, revised and modified a number of times.”
“To put this project in this location, there will be another Floyd, Irene or Sandy. We can be stronger than the storm but first can we say we are smarter?” he asked.
Newly elected governing body member Mary O’Connor brought testimony to another level when she touched on how flooding affects those who live in the township.
“With all projects there is a human side. When water is pouring in your home numbers are meaningless. Cranford is still recovering from Irene. We cannot change nature. The human side has to be considered,” she said, eliciting rousing applause from the emotionally charged audience strongly against the development project.
“You are the DEP and we are asking you to protect our environment,” the new commissioner added.
One by one residents began approaching the podium, expressing the impact flooding had on their families. Although many tried to inject humor into their three-minute time limit for speaking, it was clear that flooding in the township had taken its toll.
“I’ve written you guys so many times I feel like we are old friends,” said Anthony Bonbaci, explaining he lived right behind the Birchwood development site before blasting the developer for moving forward with the project.
“It’s about the greed and arrogance of politically connected people,” he added, noting residents and the township “have been fighting this for years.”
“There is a fragile balance on the land. Flooding will reach across two towns,” Bonbaci said, adding “just say no.”
Cranford Avenue resident Betty Crawley, a lifelong resident of the township kept it simple, imploring the DEP to think twice about approving the development project.
“We are in your hands DEP. Help us,” she said, adding “we live here. I know money talks, but we’re in your hands. Please help us.”
Phil Rozewski, who lives on Wadesworth Terrace, the street directly adjacent to the rear of the Birchwood development site, explained he had lived in the area since 1991.
“The Casino Brook runs between our houses. We are seeing 100-year storms every few years and have had at least seven or eight three-year storms since I’ve been here,” he told the panel, adding that during Irene the flood level was “up to my chest.”
Another Wadesworth Terrace resident, Ryan Surowitz had only lived in his home for five years, but it was long enough for him to question the sensibility of allowing any more development in the area.
“What scares me more than a 100-year storm is the next 100 years of flooding,” he said, adding, “what should not get lost here is the greed of a few outweighing the needs of many.”
Locust Street resident Sima Murphy explained to the DEP panel that when she bought her home it was in a non-flood area but that changed.
“I’ve had two floods with four to five feet of water in my home and the water did not come from the river, it came from the sewers backing up,” she said, pointing out that if the sewers already back up onto her property, what will happen if the Birchwood development goes through.
“I beg of you to deny this application,” Murphy added.
The only resident to speak in favor of the project was Louis Coe, a longtime resident who felt many of the comments being made at the hearing were out of line.
“When I heard the bombastic comments of Mr. Crawley, I feel it is wrong to talk about greed in this case. I believe private property rights are part of freedom,” he said, explaining to the DEP “you need to understand we do have a court order here.”
When Coe tried to explain if the township hopes to avoid further litigation they have to follow the law, audience members angrily objected to his comments. They quickly drowned out the resident, shouting “go home” and “get out of here.”
Riley quickly brought the room back under control, noting the hearing was being held “to hear from all citizens” on the issue.
Coe went on to add the township had spent $600,000 to $2 million defending their stance against this development project and at this point everyone needed assurances.
“We need to know that if this project is too big you will make the footprint smaller,” he inquired.
Former governing body member Bob Puhak of Central Avenue stepped to the podium to explain that he served on the Flood Advisory Committee and there was no doubt in his mind that flooding was getting worse in Cranford.
“We hear from families about flood waters rising, coming through their doors and windows. We ask how that can be allowed,” he told the panel, adding that thousands of homes and families are being displaced by flooding.
“How can anyone put families in jeopardy?” Puhak inquired.
“You hear us. We ask this protection agency to protect our environment, lives and property,” the former governing body member said, adding “you may be our only hope left.”
While many residents and official members spoke about the impact the Birchwood project would have on flooding, when former mayor and governing body member Ed Force stepped to the microphone, the rowdy audience grew silent.
“As a former elected official I faced many, many floods in Cranford,” he said, adding that he wanted to talk about “balance.”
“I don’t want you folks from the DEP to just look at this site. We have spent millions and millions of dollars on four major flood projects over the years. We understand development is good. It brings in taxes but when it hurts residents, it’s wrong,” he said.