Residents lash out against BOE zoning application

SPRINGFIELD – The board of education will face a formidable force Tuesday night when they head to the zoning board seeking to rezone a 9.6-acre parcel of land off Skylark Road from open space to residential.

For the last 45 years, when Natalie and Donald Hockstein looked out the back windows of their home on Skylark Road they saw nothing but beautiful woods, deer and other wildlife.

All that could change, though, if the local zoning board approves the board of education’s application to rezone this parcel of land where homes have sold from $850,000 to $1.5 million.

A grassroots effort to stop the board from obtaining this approval and to stop the board from turning around and selling the acreage to a developer comes to a head Tuesday, July 15, when the Springfield Zoning Board of Adjustment hears the application for the first time.

The board of education is seeking to eventually sell the property to repay the township some of the $3.2 million the municipality fronted to pay for the school turf field. The move, according to Springfield Superintendent of Schools Michael Davino, has more to do with obtaining “the greatest value” for the acreage so the board can legally keep the agreement it forged with the township a few years ago.

The entire deal involved the township allowing the school district use of township-owned property adjacent to Jonathan Dayton High School to build a turf field while assuming the $3.2 million debt.

This financial obligation was negotiated by former mayor Ziad Shehady, who along with the governing body at the time gave their stamp of approval to the agreement.

Part of this agreement involved the school district selling the 9.6 acres of land they own bordering Skylark Road and Treetop Drive and handing over the profit to the township to reduce the $3.2 million turf field debt.

While in recent weeks many residents living on or near Skylark Road and Tree Top Drive have questioned the reasoning behind the town making such an agreement, especially given the flooding issues the township has had in the past, Davino felt the school district was merely fulfilling an obligation they made with the township.

“We are doing due diligence here, in order to recoup as much revenue as possible, to offset the bonding the township did to pay for the turf field,” Davino said in an interview with LocalSource, adding “this is in the best interest of taxpayers.”

Davino also explained that even though the school board is trying to get the zoning changed for this parcel of land, that does not mean construction will ever take place.

“We don’t know if anything will ever be built there. All the board is doing is following through with the agreement made with the township when the turf field agreement was signed several years ago,” the superintendent added.

The Hockstein’s absolutely did not agree with the superintendent’s reasoning and neither did more than 200 residents who signed a petition started by another Skylark Road resident, Dave Schnur.

Schnur, who hosted an informative neighborhood meeting last week that brought out more than 50 concerned residents of the area, including many of those involved in the Baltusrol Top Civic Association, explained that everyone has serious concerns about what might transpire if the zoning board approves this zoning change.

“While it’s true that my home value and those of my neighbors, such as the Hockstein’s, would suffer significant loss should this plan go forward, this is really about preserving our environment, being responsible stewards of our land, not causing flooding risks for neighbors and towns down river from us and making sure that our children and their children have some green space,” said Schnur in an interview with LocalSource.

“This is clearly an issue which is opposed by a very large number of people throughout our entire community,” he added.
The resident also made it clear that this group of unhappy residents have armed themselves accordingly.

“We have hired a municipal planner, land use attorney and civil engineer and they all will be at the zoning board meeting Tuesday,” Schnur said, adding “no one understands the emotional toll this has taken on everyone.”

Schnur said his heart went out to the Hocksteins, who are in their 80’s and having a difficult time understanding why this is happening to land that was zoned for open space only.

Natalie Hockstein is more than candid about the possibility the woods surrounding her home will be cut down sometime in the future.
She told LocalSource that if the area in back of her home is rezoned, “we all will be devastated.”

“This is right on my property line, I will have streets on all sides of my home,” she said, adding “I’ll have no view at all.”
Hockstein explained that when the couple bought their home 45 years ago they did so with the knowledge the area adjacent to their property would remain zoned as open space.

“We believed them and now they are trying to deceive everyone,” the resident added, pointing out that if the property is rezoned, her property, worth approximately $850,000, would drop significantly in value.

“Who is going to buy a house up here that is surrounded by streets,” Hockstein said, her voice betraying the fear of something so dire occurring.

Her neighbors, Bernadette and Tony Cheung, echoed similar concerns but also spoke about the impact on the environment.
“A few of my neighbors have already expressed their concerns,” said Bernadette in an email to LocalSource, noting that the damage that could result from the loss of hundreds of mature trees on the natural habitat.

“There are birds, chipmunks, deer, squirrels and other creatures in plain sight. There are multiple stream beds all flowing with water and a wonderful diversity of tree and plant life throughout the area,” she explained, pointing out that the mature trees in the area are 50-years-old or more, while some appear to be closer to 100-years-old.

“Surrounding each of those trees are 10 additional trees from sapling size to perhaps 20-years-old, not to mention the ground cover and other smaller bushes,” said the resident, adding that “hundreds upon hundreds of trees and plants will be completely razed if this plan goes forward.”

Cheung said the proposed buildable area sits at the bottom of the neighborhood, or lowest point. The area slopes down towards Route 78.
“In order to build three houses, yes, just three houses, a road needs to be built. That road will literally run along the backyards of our neighbors on Skylark,” she explained, adding that due to the severe slope of the area, massive amounts of fill will be needed and it is likely retaining walls will be needed.

The Skylark Drive resident also wondered about the time the township committee decided not to install a walking path along Mount View Road, saying one of the arguments the town had against the path was that the area could not absorb water, leading to flooding and drainage issues.

“Since then two new apartment complexes were approved with large structures and parking lots. Now a road will be installed, 90,000 square-feet of absorbing natural habitat completely razed and homes and driveways built. At what point do we hear from the environmental commission that enough is enough,” Cheung said.

“I don’t know about you but I like living in an area surrounded by trees and wildlife,” she added, asking residents to “visit the area and make your own observations of the habitat the board of education is proposing to destroy.”

Schnur feels the same but has other concerns, specifically the impact on flooding if more than 240 mature trees are cut down in order to develop this acreage.

“This is a beautiful place, but the land owned by the board of education is steep, very steep. A developer would have to put a lot into it, including taking down many trees. There are more than 250 trees on that site, most, if not all are more than 100-feet tall. They are large mature trees. What will happen when they are gone?” he said.

Schnur explained that right below the 9.6 acres in question there are Rahway River tributaries and cutting down large, mature trees could send storm waters racing down this steep hill and into homes and businesses. He explained how mature trees such as this serve an important purpose when it comes to the environment.

“One mature tree, like those on the board of education’s property, absorbs 40,000 gallons of water a year. If those trees are cut down, where is that water going to go,” the resident said.

“This land is not buildable. It doesn’t make sense because water runs down hill,” Schnur added, pointing out there already is a pumping station on Tree Top Drive because of flooding in the area.

“Just because you can engineer something, doesn’t mean you should,” he said, adding “they just don’t get it, they keep on building.”
Andy Schuyler of Tree Top Drive expressed similar feelings about the prospect of homes being built on this particular land. In fact, after 33 years in the community and notably the original owner of his home, this resident felt he had a unique take on the historical importance of the area as well as current concerns about the sale of the school district’s parcel of land.

“This land was gifted to the board of education by the Baltusrol Golf Club in April 1961. The zoning designation has always been for government or open space use only – a thoughtful designation given the original intent of the gifting landowners,” the resident explained, noting the area is 70 percent wetlands and approximately 10 percent of that has to be remediated due to asphalt leaking into the soil from an old ball field.

“Those two Rahway River tributaries are also part of that river’s official watershed,” Schuyler said, adding the stories of downstream flooding in both Springfield and Cranford “are well known and extreme.”

“It’s time to stop another seriously flawed, short-sighted and damaging plan from being approved. We owe careful stewardship of our limited and precious open space to the next generations,” he said.

The Cranford Flood Advisory Board completely agreed, immediately sending out a letter to the board of education to express their concern about the proposed use of the parcel of land.

In the letter obtained by LocalSource, committee chairman Dan Aschenbach explained the devastating impact flooding in the past had on his community, pointing out that after Tropical Storm Irene hit in 2010, homeowners, businesses and even the township tallied more than $100 million in damages.

“In Cranford, downstream from the proposed development site on Treetop Road near Baltusrol Golf Course, over 1,600 homes were impacted by flood waters with Cranford’s Brookside school, the town’s First Aid Squad and municipal building sustaining significant damages,” the former mayor of Cranford said in his letter to the Springfield Board of Education.

He added that any building on this particular acreage could set a precedent for additional building in that area.

“It is hard to justify, even with engineering assessments, that subdivided property can be done in such a way that will reduce runoff into the river,” Aschenbach said, adding that such building would “further exacerbate the problem in Springfield and Cranford.”

The Cranford Flood Advisory Board now has joined forces with the Springfield’s Flood Mitigation board and the Springfield Environmental Commission to oppose any future residential development on this acreage of land owned by the board of education.
The zoning board is in receipt of the petition signed by residents living in the Skylark Road and Treetop Drive area.

The petition briefly outlined that these residents are opposed to any development on the 9.6 acres between Skylark Road and Treetop Drive, urging the zoning board “to vote against providing a use variance to the board of education.”

“We urge the members of the board to reject this application as we disagree that this project provides any benefits for the township at large,” the petition read, adding that they are very concerned about the environmental impact and flooding risk this could have on the community.
The meeting will be held Tuesday, July 15, at 7 p.m. in town hall.