Hundreds of Cranford residents have now joined the fight to prevent construction of 360 residential units in a flood-prone area of Birchwood Avenue.
At least two petitions being circulated for this purpose have gathered about 300 signatures thus far, and counting.
One of the petitions, which was started by Mayor Daniel Aschenbach, opposes the construction that a judge two weeks ago.
The other petition, which residents Andis Kalnins and Lisa Adubato Nesi began circulating on Saturday outside the Cranford Post Office, objects to builder's remedy lawsuits.
In the simplest terms, a builder’s remedy lawsuit is legal action taken by a property owner in order to try and force a municipality to allow the construction of a large, multi-unit apartment building or complex. Such is the case in Cranford. The S. Hekemian Group of Paramus bought the property in October 2008 and proposed 356 market rate units and 63 units of low- and moderate-income housing. It then filed a suit 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.
More than a year ago, a special master was appointed to study the case and reported to a judge that the project should go forward due to the town's obligation to provide affordable housing.
But Cranford officials object because Birchwood Avenue is a flood-prone area and at risk of overdevelopment.
The petition created by mayor Aschenbach says, "Birchwood is in a flood zone and the neighborhood school is at overcapacity. Flooding of neighboring streets is a serious problem. Cranford has had a sound record on affordable housing. This overdevelopment plan will create more problems."
The mayor recently posted on an online community message board to explain the town's position regarding the proposed development on Birchwood and the Township Committee's efforts.
"My purpose here is to request we stay on the same page with a focus on the major challenge at hand. No Democrat or Republican has ever advocated such overdevelopment at either Birchwood or 555 South Ave. In both cases citizens have worked hard to try to ensure Cranford residential quality remained as strong as ever," Aschenbach said.
Many of the 193 residents who have already signed the online petition also commented on the proposed development.
"I live on Casino Ave that continuously floods when we get two inches of rain or more. The Birchwood development will directly impact and increase the flooding on Casino Avenue. The citizens of Cranford do not want this development. I do not understand how one judge can be allowed to ignore the wishes of an entire town and add to the flooding problems of a town and be in favor of irresponsible development," Eva Hofmann wrote on the web page.
Another resident, Matthew Nazzaro, said "How one judge's ruling can trample over responsible development, existing zoning rules, documented flooding issues and foremost, the will of the people I may never understand."
Resident Alexandra Alexo is also fed up with the project.
"As a resident whose property abuts the Birchwood property, I am completely against this development for the same reasons so many others have already mentioned: serious flooding issues, school overcrowding, and quality of life in my neighborhood. Cranford is already fulfilling its Council of Affordable Housing requirements with the South Avenue development. Enough is enough. Do not allow this property to be overdeveloped," Alexo commented on the web page.
The mayor said the petition is one of four strategies that officials plan to put into action. The others include "legal strategy, the flood control concern and the options strategy." The Township Committee will discuss the legal strategy next week, he said.
"We do have a challenge before us," Aschenbach said. "If citizens stay on the same page and work together I do believe we can prevail."
Andis Kalnins and Lisa Adubato Nesi, both who plan to run for seats on the Township Committee in November, are fighting for similar results and object to builder's remedy lawsuits that can force a town to build in areas that don't necessarily meet community needs.
According to state law, every community in New Jersey has a constitutional obligation to allow for the building of affordable housing. It is regulated by the Council on Affordable Housing.
Aschenbach said the township will be asking Gov. Chris Christie to "incorporate in state legislation that communities be given an opportunity to put forward a plan to meet affordable housing that meets each community’s residential housing needs and not an arbitrary COAH number."
James Weisgerber, a North Union Avenue resident who signed the Kalnins/Adubato Nesi petition, believes the township is "getting too much into low-income housing." He believes the addition of large apartment complexes will place "undo burden" on the school system.
"We need to develop downtown and get in more businesses, not apartments," Weisgerber said. "I think we're growing in the wrong direction."
Kalnins, who said he and Adubato Nesi also plan to distribute the petition to people whose neighbors are interested in signing, pointed out that they are not trying to stop the COAH Housing program or decisions.
"We are asking that the criteria that is used to decide on the units be changed. We are asking that things like impact on schools, environmental concerns, like the fact that the development is in a flood prone area, and the impact on community services, like traffic and policing, be considered in the decision of the approval and number of units in these decisions. Currently as mentioned in the existing court decision, they are not," Kalnins said, adding that anyone interested in adding their names to the petition can do so by emailing him or Adubato Nesi at Kalnins2011@verizon.net or to Lisa at Lnesi@verizon.net.
"We would like to get a couple thousand signatures to make an impact on our legislative representatives and the governor. We believe that an actual signature will be more effective than an electronic survey," Kalnins said.