Site Plan Hearing Underway On Birchwood Development

Thursday, August 9, 2012

By DELL SIMEONE Specially Written for The Westfield Leader 

CRANFORD – A special two-day hearing on the site plan for the proposed Birchwood Development, a 360- unit apartment building with a fivestory parking garage, to be built by Cranford Development Associates (CDA), a subsidiary of the S. Hekemian Group of Paramus, was being held yesterday and today at the Union Country Courthouse in Elizabeth. 

The proposed apartment building is to contain 60 affordable housing units to satisfy State Council on Affordable Housing regulations. It has been a controversial topic for the past few years, since residents of the area are opposed to the development, due to concerns about flooding and infrastructure in the environmentally sensitive area, which is surrounded by wetlands. 

Cranford suffered massive flooding last year during Hurricane Irene, which damaged many homes and businesses. The CDA won a Builder’s Remedy lawsuit against the township, which opposes the development at 215/235 Birchwood Avenue. However, Superior Court Judge Lisa F. Chrystal decided in favor of the developer. Cranford Township is in the process of appealing that decision.

 Cranford has been persistent in asking for a change of venue for the special hearing. Retired Superior Court Judge Douglas K. Wolfson has been appointed by Judge Chrystal to act as a special hearing officer and to conduct the Birchwood site plan hearing.

 CDA had asked the court, on short notice, to hear a request on August 3, five days prior to the site plan hearing, to re-grade Birchwood Avenue by elevating it one foot above the flood zone so as to facilitate obtaining a permit from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP). Judge Chrystal denied this request; however, she suggested the matter could be decided at the site plan hearing. Cranford Township Attorney Philip Morin made an August 3 motion to the court, requesting a change of venue for the hearing, and was denied by Judge Chrystal on August 6. 

Cranford residents are upset that the hearing is taking place in Elizabeth and not in Cranford, which would be more convenient and better facilitate resident participation. A group calling itself Cranford Taxpayers, on its blog spot, asked residents to download a prepared letter to Judge Wolfson and to Special Master Elizabeth McKenzie, requesting a change of venue and a September date for the hearing. 

The property in question is 16 acres at 215/235 Birchwood Avenue. The proposed height of the buildings is 55 feet; building A will have 60 units and building B will have 300 units. Building A will have 59 parking spaces and Building B will have 520 parking spaces.  There also will be a surface lot with 89 parking spaces, for a total of 668 parking spaces. 

Cranford Township has persisted in its effort to obtain a stay order on the site plan hearing by appealing to Appellate Court Judge Jerome M. St. John to grant a stay on the hearing based on the August 6 order authorizing the special hearing officer in a Mount Laurel case to determine and make recommendation concerning whether the township is required to permit CDA to re-grade a portion of Birchwood Avenue so it (CDA) can obtain NJDEP Flood and Hazard Area approval. The appeal contends that this determination is outside of the authority of the special hearing officer and was never presented at trial. The appeal states that the jurisdiction of the special hearing officer was strictly limited to public hearings under the Municipal Land Use Laws. 

The basis of the appeal is questioning whether the trial court’s last minute referral of such a substantive issue to a hearing examiner is proper in regard to Mount Laurel.