Published: Wednesday, September 07, 2011, 10:38 PM Updated: Wednesday, September 07, 2011, 11:06 PM
By Paul Mulshine/The Star Ledger
Residents in Cranford's flood zone have been ordered to evacuate from their homes, while others race to fill sandbags at the Public Works facility on North Avenue as Hurricane Irene closes in on New Jersey.
At least the fridge survived.
I’m talking about the small refrigerator Paul Swider keeps on the front porch of his Cranford home for Sunday afternoon beer sessions. Pretty much anyone can show up — even the guy who keeps bringing those raspberry wheat beers that no one wants to drink.
As for Swider, he’s an India pale ale guy. So am I, and I shared a couple with him once when I visited his porch to take part in the ritual.
Hurricane Irene was not kind to Cranford. The Kilkenny House, down by the railroad tracks, was flooded up to the beer taps, a tragedy that could set the town’s beer drinkers back for months. As for Swider’s old Victorian home on Casino Avenue, the water didn’t make it to the porch, but Swider lost his water heater and his furnace when his cellar flooded.
“A lot of my neighbors had water on the first floor,” he said. Irene was an extreme case, but Casino Avenue floods regularly as rain works its way down to the Rahway River, Swider said. The flooding will only get worse if the state bureaucrats get their way. Thanks to the agency formerly known as COAH, the town could get stuck with a 360-unit, high-density housing development to be built next to a flood plain just up the street.
Gov. Chris Christie is dissolving the bureaucracy known as the Council on Affordable Housing. And not a moment too soon for the people of Cranford. In 2008, the COAH planners showed just how out of touch with reality they are by compiling a map of buildable lots in town, which included the shoulders and median of the Garden State Parkway.
That’s the sort of thing that caused Christie to make good on his promise to dissolve COAH. But towns like Cranford are still stuck with the legacy of the two state Supreme Court Mount Laurel decisions. Those decisions created an amorphous “right” for every citizen to purchase affordable housing.
That works out a lot better in theory than in practice, as the 2008 burst of the housing bubble showed. Housing is now too affordable. A lot of people owe more on their mortgages than their houses are worth.
Usually, it’s said these people are “underwater” on their mortgages. But for a lot of Cranford homeowners, Irene gave a whole new meaning to the term “underwater,” Mayor Dan Aschenbach said. Some homes may have to be condemned, but the Federal Emergency Management Agency will reimburse owners only for the value of the house. The owners could end up with a mortgage to pay off, but no house to live in.
That’s a tragedy. But it’s a comedy when you think of how the branches of government are working at cross purposes. The feds want to get people out of a flood-prone Cranford. The state’s trying to cram more people in.
“I’m pushing the governor and the Department of Environmental Protection commissioner to understand what’s going on,” Aschenbach said. “We’ve got to get them out there to see how ridiculous it is.”
What Christie and DEP Commissioner Bob Martin would see is that Cranford has been developed for decades. There are only a couple of open areas around to absorb that rainwater, and the site off Birchwood Avenue — where that five-story high-rise would go — is one of them.
Aschenbach would like to have the town acquire the site and create a baseball field and a retention basin. The court has other ideas. So far, the developer’s been successful in a so-called “builder’s remedy” lawsuit that would require Cranford to permit the project, as long as 63 of the units are sold below market value.
That litigation promises to go on for years and the town has already spent $1 million defending against it, Aschenbach said. And that drives up property taxes — as would the addition of hundreds of new students to the town’s crowded schools if the project is ever built. “A project like this would change the entire nature of the town,” he said.
As for Swider, he’s of the opinion that the government’s already got enough trouble dealing with what has become a chronic flooding problem in Cranford.
“I don’t know how they could even being to think of adding more buildings and more homes,” he said. “The rain has to flow somewhere.”
Fortunately, so does the beer.