The halls of the State House were quiet last Thursday, But Mayor Daniel Aschenbach, Township Comissioner Ed O'Malley and former Township Committee candidate Tom Hannen walked up the empty front steps and through the security checkpoint, hopeful that Governor Chris Christie would be in his office.
Their goal was to hand-deliver a petition signed by more than 750 residents along with a letter opposing the construction of units in a flood-prone area of Birchwood Avenue. In the four months since flooding from Hurricane Irene left a trail of destruction throughout town, the hotly contested project has incited outrage among residents and town officials as the developer continues to push the project forward, regardless of residents' concerns about flooding or overdevelopment.
Walking past the small group of frisbee-tossing "Occupy New Jersey" protesters who were camped across the street from the State House, the outgoing mayor, who lost his bid for re-election last month, looked hopeful that he might soon have an audience with the governor or another top-level official once inside the building. It didn't happen, as the governor wasn't in Trenton that day. Instead, the small group was ushered to the fourth floor of the state capitol building, to a tiny room in the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs. Once inside the office, the mayor was greeted by Pete Sheridan, an employee of the IGA department, who spent a few minutes discussing the proposed Birchwood Avenue project with Cranford officials. The mayor briefly told Sheridan about the Birchwood project and the town's concerns.
The development calls for the construction of 360 residential units on a 15.8-acre lot in Cranford’s 0-1 Low Density Office Building Zone. The property is surrounded by single-family residential zones.
The S. Hekemian Group of Paramus bought the property in October 2008 for $8 million, and initially proposed 356 market rate units and 63 units of low- and moderate-income housing. It then filed a builder's remedy lawsuit in New Jersey Superior Court claiming that Cranford is in violation of its constitutional duty to create sufficient opportunity for the construction of low- and moderate-income housing. In late July, Superior Court Judge Lisa F. Chrystal sided with the developer, on Birchwood Avenue. The mayor and Township Committee members vowed to appeal the decision. They also urged reisdents to sign petitions and write letters opposing the project as well as builder's remedy lawsuits in general.
, residents began noticing construction equipment at the site as crews began excavating the land, allegedly without having obtained the proper permits. Officials promptly filed for an injuntion to stop the work. The excavation has since ceased. The mayor is hoping to condemn and purchase the property as part of the state’s “Blue Acres” program. The town could then turn the site into a retention basin, which would help control flooding.
The most recent development in the debacle centers around an application to the Department of Environmental protection filed by Peter Hekemian.
"Peter Hekemian has advised that he is applying for a NJDEP flood hazard permit for 215 and 235 Birchwood Ave.," Aschenbach said. The flood hazard area permit is required for this project because some or all of the work is proposed in a flood hazard area.
Pulling out a packet of information including a printout of the electronic petition opposing the Birchwood project, the mayor told the state IGA representative that he was delivering the petition "on behalf of the 750 residents who signed it that oppose the granting of such permits."
"It's unimaginable to put 360 additional households in this flood plain that we might eventally have to evacuate," O'Malley told the state representative.
Aschenbach told Sheridan that he is hoping the governor will be able to help put a stop to the development.
"The governor has not been shy in his comments about the COAH system," Sheridan told the Cranford contingent. "However, the legislation that came through was not what we hoped for."
During a on Sept. 19 in Union, the governor specifically addressed problems regarding flooding from Hurricane Irene. He made mention of the issues that Cranford faced, and the problems the township is having as a result of the proposed Birchwood development.
"The Cranford situation is on the forefront of my mind right now. COAH is forcing this situation," Christie said, adding that all of the affordable housing obligations and situations similar to those in Cranford are being looked at.
Aschenbach told Sheridan than while the township is "not adverse to meeting other affordable housing opportunities," it's hard for Cranford residents to understand why the developer would undertake a project of "this magnitude" in a flood zone.
After dropping off the petition and being assured that it would make it's way through the proper channels and into the governor's hands, Aschenbach headed down the road from the State House to the headquarters of the NJ Department of Environmental Protection. The plan was to met with at least a dozen other mayors and municipal engineers that make up the . One of the things the council is looking at is to work with the city of Orange to lower water levels in the reservoirs in the South Mountain Reservation, which will help reduce flooding in downtown. The goal of the council is to take a regional approach to the flooding issue throughout the Rahway River Watershed which affects towns along the river in both Union and Essex counties.