Flooding is a fact of life for Berkeley Heights, New Providence, Chatham and Long Hill Township residents who live near the Passaic river. About 100 of those residents sought answers from New Jersey environmental activists Monday night and heard that it could take a generation of work to ease the risks.
During a stream protection meeting last night at , a panel of five environmental experts, from Berkeley Heights and the State, said it could take anywhere from five to 20 years to fix the flooding problem. Panelists indicated that this is largely due to lack of ownership and responsibility for the river from the municipalities and the county, which continues to prevent overall maintenance of the river, clearing of existing debris and dredging of the riverbeds.
About 100 local residents attended the meeting and several of them became frustrated when they felt that many of their questions were not being adequately answered and the panel was focusing on the overall flooding problem in the State, instead of flooding in the Passaic River and its impact on area towns.
Out of the residents who attended, about a dozen spoke up and asked the panel how future flooding can be prevented, who exactly is responsible for maintenance of the river, and a timeline for when action can be taken. Others pinpointed troublesome areas in Berkeley Heights — Snyder Avenue and Riverbend Avenue — which were so flooded after Hurricane Irene last year that many residents were treading through high waters just to leave their neighborhood or were stranded all together.
Andrew Clark, a panelist from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, said that as residents request debris to be removed from the river from the municipality, the county, or the state, they get the run around as no one takes ownership and “no one wants to pay for it.” But a solution is for the town and county to do a study to locate the problem areas and apply for permits to remove the debris on their own.
“The money has to come from somewhere,” Clark said. “You have to identify where the problems are, and you need to do a study to do that [to determine where debris is clogging up the river].”
Richard Plambeck, a 20-year representative of the Passaic River Coalition and a panelist, said a study was done by the coalition before Hurricane Irene that identified 130 snags in the river from Warren to Chatham. From there, Plambeck said the coalition began working with the Morris and Union Counties and their Park and Mosquito Extermination Commissions to start removing the snags.
He said they have removed a number of snags on county-owned land, but explained that the only time of year they can do that is after August 1 and before May 1, based on the Trout population in the river.
Cindy Randazzo, Executive Director for Local Government Assistance with NJDEP and one of the panelists, said one solution, for now, is for the local municipalities, the county and the state to work together to solve the flooding problem.
“I know there’s a lot of finger pointing that goes on about who is responsible and quite honestly, I look at it as a state, county and municipality, we can work together to solve these issues and that’s what I’m attempting to do,” Randazzo said. “A lot of times, it’s cost prohibitive.”
But she said Union County is working on solutions and is in the process of applying for general permits so the county and local municipalities can clear out some of the smaller debris on their own.
“There are different permits depending on the type of work it is,” Randazzo said. “What they are looking to do is get general permits so they can develop a maintenance program. That’s what they are going to do.”
She said she intends to follow up with Union County regarding their maintenance program and ensure that towns like Berkeley Heights and New Providence are aware of it.
As for the removal of larger debris, Bob Bocchino, engineer for Berkeley Heights and one of the panelists, said that is no clear cut owner of the Passaic River, as some portions are owned by property owners, the municipalities and the county. Therefore, said Bocchino, it’s difficult to determine who is responsible for river maintenance, which can be very expensive.
Bocchino suggested each municipality should look at their tax maps, determine who owns each area of the river, and then set up a plan and schedule to clean and maintain the river.
Plambeck said another option all together is for property owners, municipalities and counties to consider buyouts of at-risk properties.
“The Passaic River Coalition supports the natural approach to protection against flooding, including buyouts of the at-risk properties,” he said. “There are more opportunities for buyouts now then there have ever been. They are becoming much more of the solution that counties and municipalities are looking to do.”
Plambeck further explained that some municipalities are leveraging FEMA money they received so they can pay for buyouts of at-risk properties, something Union County and its municipalities might want to consider.
“The county is willing to do the mapping [of the at-risk properties],” Plambeck said. “They’ll do the work to help set up a plan so instead of one property at a time coming in [for a buyout], they’re looking for the municipalities to have a plan and the county is willing to work with the town to develop that plan. But get in the queue if you’re interested, talk to your municipality. As the meeting winded down, three panelists — Bocchino, Plambeck and Randazzo — encouraged residents to contact them for more help. Here is their contact information:
- Cindy Randazzo, Director of the Office of Local Government Assistance for NJDEP, 609-633-7700, firstname.lastname@example.org
- Bob Bocchino, Berkeley Heights Township Engineer, 908-464-2700, email@example.com
- Richard Plambeck, Representative for Passaic River Coalition, 973-532-9830, firstname.lastname@example.org