Site Plan Hearings Begin On Birchwood Development

By DELL SIMEONE Specially Written for The Westfield Leader 
Thursday, August 16, 2012

CRANFORD – Hearings on the site plan of a Cranford apartment development of 360 apartments, including 60 affordable units, to be built on 215/235 Birchwood Avenue, were held in Union County Superior Court in Elizabeth last Wednesday and Thursday. Cranford Township, which opposes the project, was represented by Township Attorney Philip Morin. The developer, Cranford Development Associates (CDA), was represented by Stephen M. Eisendorfer. 

Retired Superior Court Judge Douglas K. Wolfson presided. Also present was Special Master Elizabeth McKenzie. Both have extensive knowledge of land-use laws and Mount Laurel issues. They were both appointed by Superior Court Judge Lisa F. Chrystal, who presided over a builder’s remedy lawsuit brought against the township by CDA. Last year, the judge ruled in favor of the developer. The township opposes the development because of flooding concerns. The 16-acre tract borders wetlands. Cranford suffered massive flooding last year during Hurricane Irene. 

About 30 Cranford residents attended the hearing. Deputy Mayor Andis Kalnins, Committeeman Edward O’Malley and Township Engineer Richard Marsden also were present. Mayor David Robinson and Committeewoman Lisa Adubato were both away on vacation and Committeeman Kevin Campbell boycotted the hearings. In a letter to the editor of this paper, he said, “The court’s decision in this matter essentially limited the environmental review to the NJDEP (New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection) regulations as they applied to the site rather than the overall impact to the municipality with existing and massive flooding problems.” 

At the outset of the hearing, Mr. Morin stated that the township objects to the hearing officer assuming the jurisdiction of the Cranford Planning Board, and that the issue of CDA regrading, or raising, a portion of Birchwood Avenue one foot above the flood plain in order to obtain a permit from the NJDEP to build in a  flood hazardous area be at the discretion of the hearing officer, and that the venue is inconvenient for Cranford residents. 

Judge Wolfson and Ms. McKenzie acknowledged receiving letters from the township stating its objection. The judge said, however, that since the hearings are a result of a court order, it is proper that they be conducted in court in Elizabeth. 

The bulk of testimony, on Wednesday, was given by Christopher Lessard, the architect for CDA. Mr. Lessard outlined the placement and dimensions of the apartment complex on the property. He said there would be three structures: Building A, with three residential floors with parking and a lobby underneath; Building B, also residential but smaller, and Building C, an open-air, three-level parking garage with a ramp and parking surrounded by a four-foot wall on the top level. He said the property also would have a patio and a pool. The residences would consist of one-, two- and three- bedroom apartments, with lofts on the top levels. Over 600 parking spaces would be provided for residents and visitors, including a portion designated as handicapped spaces. 

Maria Anderson, an attorney, who lives in Kenilworth not far from the site, asked Mr. Lessard, “Where will the affordable units be in the buildings?” He responded, “That has yet to be determined.” Special Master McKenzie reminded Mr. Lessard that final site-plan approval requires that placement of the affordable units must be identified. 

Potential traffic problems were addressed by CDA traffic engineer, Elizabeth Dolan, who stated that additional traffic to the area would have minimal impact. Mr. Morin, Deputy Mayor Kalnins and Thomas Hannen, a township committee candidate this November, questioned her on her analysis.

 On the second day of the hearing, CDA Civil Engineer Michael Dipple testified as to setback, landscaping and flood plain issues. He also said there would be a loading area for persons who were moving in or out of the buildings and an area for trash. He described grading, drainage and a utility plan. 

Mr. Dipple also described how the complex would hook up to existing storm and water pipes based on a flow capacity study in the area. He stated that CDA was willing to comply with all NJDEP standards. He also said CDA would assume the cost of regrading Birchwood Avenue. Flood storage, flow, runoff and drainage were addressed, as well as landscaping issues. 

Peter Hekemian, a principal in CDA, testified that whether or not CDA was granted a hardship waiver by the NJDEP, CDA was prepared to go forward with the project. 

When the hearings resume on Tuesday, August 21, at the Union County Courthouse, at 10 a.m. in courtroom 101, Thomas Creelman, an engineer with Paulus, Sokolowski & Sartor, LLC (PS&S), of Warren, who testified for Cranford in the builder’s remedy lawsuit, is expected to crossexamine Mr. Dipple along with Mr. Morin and Mr. Marsden.