Mountainside votes to expand heavily wooded Barnes Tract despite opposition

Photo Courtesy of Nick Barbera
This aerial view of the heavily wooded Barnes Tract along Mountain Avenue in Mountainside shows the area, which will be expanded by developers to alleviate traffic congestion from a proposed apartment and commercial complex, although officials acknowledge there are no specific plans for the project yet. This photograph of the parcel was taken by a drone.

MOUNTAINSIDE, NJ — The Mountainside Borough Council on Sept. 19 held a preliminary vote to expand a five-acre wooded site along Mountain Avenue — known as the Barnes Tract — at the end of Knightsbridge Road, for a 32-unit apartment complex. The expansion would ostensibly lessen the traffic impact of the new building, however some residents complained since a formal plan for the land has not yet been presented.

The council’s Barnes Tract Committee had initially proposed the addition of two lots of land, Lot 13 on the north side and Lot 17 on the south side. However, the committee recommended at the meeting that only Lot 13 be included, which comprises a .4-acre parcel. This recommendation was adopted, although a formal ordinance at a later meeting will be necessary for final approval.

With its vote, the council cleared the way for developer Pop Realty’s additional purchase, which will increase the five-acre lot at the northeast end of the existing property to 5.4 acres. Pop Realty agreed to purchase five acres for $3.1 million last year.

“This will give additional frontage on Mountain Avenue, which will help the flow of traffic,” Mayor Paul Mirabelli said at the Sept. 19 council meeting.

However, during the public comment portion of the meeting, resident Richard Kress asked the committee why the council would enlarge the lot when it still has no knowledge of plans for the project.

The heavily wooded area was zoned for residential and commercial use in 2014 to comply with Mount Laurel housing quotas. The Barnes Tract development will accommodate a housing complex with 24 market units, six affordable housing units and space for commercial use.

The project is part of Mountainside’s court-mandated Mount Laurel requirement, which will have 16 designated affordable units spread among three properties, including the Barnes Tract, Brighton Garden on Route 22, and Alpine Ridge at Mountainside. The plan to include the units is a result of two “builder’s remedy” lawsuits in 1980 and in 2003.

While construction is ongoing at Alpine, the Barnes Tract development is still in its early stage, and there is not yet a preliminary development plan.

The proposal will now go to the Mountainside Planning Board, Mirabelli said at the meeting. If that board approves this condition, it will come back to mayor and council to be passed as an ordinance, after which Pop Realty will approach the board with specific project plans, the mayor said.

Despite Mirabelli outlining plans for moving the project forward, residents were critical of the approval of the expansion, as well as the development itself at the council meeting.

The Barnes Tract is located adjacent to Echo Lake Park, which contains a lake and a pond, and resident Nick Barbera told LocalSource on Oct. 3 that he is concerned about the potential environmental and ecological impacts of the new development. He said the developer will ultimately knock down trees to construct the new complex.

“All the developments they talk about in other towns are knocking down existing structures and turning them into affordable housing,” Barbera said. “The Barnes Tract is knocking down a forest adjacent to a park and a pond, which will create new traffic flow.”
Mountainside clerk Martha Lopez confirmed the borough has not conducted any environmental impact studies on the area.
LocalSource has acquired N.J. Department of Environmental Protection records dated Feb. 16 that also show no environmental impact studies.

The Barnes Tract was rezoned to accommodate Mount Laurel housing two years before Mountainside received a bid for the property by Pop Reality in late 2016.

“That means the town rezoned a 5-acre wooded lot adjacent to a pond and Echo Lake Park with no studies or surveys done at all,” Barbera said.

He took his concerns about the project’s potential environmental degradation to the Union County Board of Chosen Freeholders’ Sept. 14 meeting.

County Administrator Victoria Drake responded to Barbera’s concerns via email Sept. 19.
“I have been asked to assure you that the County of Union is interested in all development in the County of Union, especially when it is adjacent to county-owned property,” Drake said. “I understand your concern about the unnecessary loss of mature trees, and have informed the county Parks Department to be aware of border trees in this area.”

While some residents are alarmed by the development’s environmental impact, others are concerned about the new traffic and congestion it will bring.

Mountainside resident, Marrianne Hopka, told the council she had left her house at 7:20 a.m to go to work in Westfield, and was “sitting on the corner of Echo Lake Park and Mountain Avenue for 19 minutes. If we add more housing to Mountain Ave., this is going to be a 45-minute wait.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the original size of the property tract and the dimensions of the development plan. It also incorrectly reported the status of the land purchase by Pop Realty.