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Residents Urge DEP to Deny Birchwood Development Application

More than 25 residents spoke in opposition of the project during Thursday’s hearing.

The Township’s engineering consultant, Leo Coakley, at the Jan. 17 Birchwood DEP hearing. Credit: Nicole Bitette
The Township’s engineering consultant, Leo Coakley, at the Jan. 17 Birchwood DEP hearing. Credit: Nicole Bitette

Residents who missed out on seating, lined the walls of the packed committee chambers on Thursday as the DEP held a hearing on applications submitted by Cranford Development Associates regarding the Birchwood Avenue project.

The hearing served as an opportunity for the Department of Environmental Protection to obtain supplemental information from the public before making a decision on the application.

Cranford Development Associates are asking the Division of Land Use at the Department of Environmental Protection to approve for permits or approvals that include, flood hazard area individual permit and verification, freshwater wetlands transition area averaging water and a freshwater wetlands transition area special activity redevelopment waiver.

They are hoping to construct a 360 unit multi-family development in two buildings, as well as a parking structure and modifications to a portion of Birchwood Avenue.

More than 25 residents waited in a line outside the doors to sign up to speak during the hearing, all in opposition of the project. Rick Riley, Bureau Manager of Inland Regulation, moderated the hearing while two DEP engineers and a director sat beside him.

To begin, Cranford Development Associates let their Civil Engineer for the project, Mike Dippel, provide a brief background on what they are asking for in the application. Dippel displayed a map that outlined the floodways and the planned location for the two buildings and parking areas.

He explained that the wetlands would remain untouched and that the site includes measures for storm water management, including an underground detention system, which reduces peak flow for all storm events coming off of the site.

Dipped added that the developers are looking to modify a 300 foot section of Birchwood Avenue by raising it.

The Township’s engineering consultant, Leo Coakley, followed Dippel and pointed out that his concerns lie with building and construction so close to the floodways. He said that the calculations show the floodway could raise the water the water level .17 or .12 feet.

“ My concern is by constructing facilities the building and road fill against a floodway line, it will cause that increase and that increase will affect across properties,” he explained.

He added that from what he understands from the regulations, if a property owner only owns property one side of the stream, they are not allowed to increase flooding.

Mayor Andy Kalnins focused on flooding in Cranford as an issue that extends beyond the Birchwood project. Kalnins said that since the 70’s the Township has been working on laws and with developers to reduce flooding.

“What this does it pushed everything to the extreme,” he said. “Look at it as a whole, not just on this project, but the entire town… it’s way too much.”

Current commissioner and last year’s mayor, Tom Hannen, brought up the technical deficiencies with the application, including the impassibility of the western driveway by public safety vehicles and existing drainage concerns.

Hannen added that putting this project in that location goes against everything logical.

Although the initial background of what was presented was scientific, town officials and residents believed it was important for the DEP to understand there is a human side to the impact of the proposed project.

Commissioner Mary O’Connor referred to the flooding and devastation of homes in Cranford that the township has seen just in the past 15 years. She said that residents still continue to recover from Irene and science cannot be the sold factor, but a human factor must be considered.

You are the department of environmental protection and we are asking you to protect our environment,” she said.

Deputy Mayor Lisa Adubato also referenced that science cold not be the only basis for a decision.

“These regulations they are part of a larger body of law laws that are put into effect for the same reason all laws are put into effect,” Adubato explained. “We always must remember regulations aren’t there to serve science but the lives of people impacted by this project.”

Borough Mayor of Kenilworth Kathi Fiamingo also spoke on how the flooding issue is larger than Cranford and that even with a heavy downpour the area can begin to flood.

As members of the public took to the podium, all asked the DEP to deny the applications. Several homeowners displayed photographs of flooding in the area of the project, specifically on Wadsworth and Casino Avenue.  Residents also spoke of how the development would impact wildlife and how more construction and developing is what has made flooding worse over the years.

Joseph LoGiudice of Wadsworth Terrace displayed two sets of pictures from his backyard that show it filled with floodwater and one without water.

“100 year floods come every couple of years,” he said as the audience yelled out in agreement. “Building a high density development would greatly worse current flooding issues.”

Gene Marino of Casino Avenue said that by raising Birchwood Avenue and moving water in either direction, there is no question in his mind that there will be more flooding events in the future.

Frank Krause was one of a few members of the public to reference the development’s impact on the nearby Conservation Center.  He stated it is one of Cranford’s greatest assets and Township Engineer Richard Marsden also touched on the fact the center could not handle any flooding.

Resident Barry Sherrington explained that adding 360 families to a known flood area is not safe. If another Irene happens, those families could be stranded and isolated, he explained.

Another area touched on by residents is the loss of trees by the project. Nelson Dittmar, Chair of the Environmental Commission, explained that under the tree ordinance since the developers plan to remove 72 trees, they would need to replace them with 295 trees. However, their place only allocates for between 100 and 200 trees.

Residents went on to explain that the trees served as an absorber for the water and between the removal of trees and the loss of trees during Sandy, the flooding will only get worse.

A newer Cranford resident, Kate Florio, who holds a background in science and climatology, discussed how climate change should be considered in the project. She explained that as the ocean warms hurricanes could be expected in a greater frequency or become more intense.

Several more residents took the podium on Thursday all in opposition of the project. One woman, Debbie Crawley, pleaded to the DEP saying “you’re our last hope.”

Assemblyman Jon Bramnick and Assemblywoman Nancy Munoz attended the beginning portion of meeting.

The meeting ran for about three hours and anyone who wanted to speak again was given a second opportunity.

Those who would like to submit comments on the application can submit them in writing until Jan. 23.

Address the comments to the NJDEP at:

Valda Opara
New Jeresy Department of Evnrionmental Proection
Division of Land Use Regulation
P.O. Box 420 (mail code 501-02A)
Trenton, New Jersey 08625

Stephen Eisdorfer
Hill Wallack LLP
202 Carnegie Center
Princeton, NJ 08543

The DEP will consider all comments and written submissions before making a decision on the application.

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