Committee Approves Birchwood Ordinance 'Under Protest'
Officials say the approval of the measure will allow the town to appeal a judge's decision to allow a housing development to be built in a flood zone.
Following a public hearing that lasted nearly two hours, the Township Committee approved an ordinance "under protest" that will alter the town's master plan to allow an apartment complex to be built in a flood-prone area on Birchwood Avenue.
The court-ordered ordinance will also allow the township to move forward with the process of appealing Superior Court Judge Lisa Chrystal's July, 2011 decision to allow developer, S. Hekemian Group, to build 360 housing units on Birchwood Avenue. Residents and officials have been protesting the court's decision for several months. Community members have written letters to legislators, spoken out at meetings, spoken directly to Gov. Christie Christie during town hall meetings an on radio programs, visited state officials in Trenton and signed petitions opposing the proposed development.
On Tuesday night, nearly 40 distraught residents - many of whom live in the neighborhood of Birchwood Avenue - crowded into council chambers to speak during the public hearing that preceded the approval of the ordinance.
One Wadsworth terrace resident called the mandatory ordinance a "travesty of justice." Others deemed the measure "ridiculous," "insane" and even "unconstitutional."
Resident Frank Krauss said he believes the Birchwood Avenue property, a known flood zone, acts as a natural 17-acre detention basin which will be compromised if an apartment complex is constructed on the site.
Catherine Alexander of Crane Parkway said she has a background in environmental engineering and is opposed to the development. Alexander has attended several meetings to voice her opposition to the project.
"The Birchwood site is a clear example of an area that can be used to build more resiliency into the system for a sustainable Cranford," Alexander said.
Kathy Sheridan of Wadsworth Terrace, located behind the Birchwood site, said her home never flooded until five homes were constructed on nearby Bloomingdale Avenue in April of 2007. She believes any additional construction will add to the flooding problem.
Other residents, including former Mayor mark Smith, question the developer's actions in October and November of 2011, when crews were sent by the Hekemian Group to begin excavating the property, which once housed a landfill. Crews began the work without obtaining the proper permits and approvals from local and state authorities. A temporary restraining order was requested by the township to prevent the property owners from working at the site and a complaint with the NJ DEP's Solid Waste Enforcement Bureau was filed.
Township officials learned of the work taking place on the site after residents began contacting members of the governing body and the Police Department to complain. Smith pressed the governing body on the issue, asking how and why the work was allowed to happen. Mayor David Robinson said the "developer took great liberty and ran amok" on the property.
According to Township Attorney Philip Morin, the Township Committee was required by the court to pass the ordinance Tuesday night amending the master plan, even though officials were opposed to it.
"Based upon its interpretation of prior New Jersey Supreme Court decisions, the Superior Court in Elizabeth has ruled that the township of Cranford has not provided 'realistic opportunities' to build affordable housing, which is grounded in the New Jersey State Constitution," Morin said in a press release earlier on Tuesday. "The court issued an Order on Dec. 9, 2011, which requires the township to amend its master plan and zoning ordinance to allow construction of a 360 unit apartment complex with 54 affordable rental units at 215-235 Birchwood Ave."
As a result, Morin said, the Cranford Township Committee introduced an ordinance, under protest, on April 24 which changes local zoning rules to create a new zone that permits the construction of the apartment complex at 215-235 Birchwood Avenue.
"While the Township Committee has publicly stated on a number of occasions that it will continue to fight this development in the courts and in Trenton, the township has no choice but to adopt the new zoning ordinance so that the township’s legal battle can continue and the township can appeal the trial court’s decision," Morin said. "In fact, the township’s failure to act on the ordinance could result in sanctions against the township, including the imposition of civil penalties for purposely disregarding a court order."
Still, some residents felt the governing body should reject the ordinance. Deputy Mayor Andis Kalnins said the Township Committee "has done a lot of work on this ordinance, and I think we have done a lot to fight this in general." Kalnins added that the ordinance will allow the township to file an appeal, which means it will give the town an opportunity to "get away from a judge that has disregarded" issues such as flooding in the area as well as the impact on traffic, schools and the community in general.
The township attorney said despite the ordinance allowing for the the construction of a housing complex, the town would continue to fight the development.
"The Cranford Township Committee is firm in its opposition to this court mandated development project and wants to continue to demonstrate to those that are in anyway involved in this project that the township and its citizens stand united in our opposition," Morin said.