Eminent Domain Removed From Prop. In Study Area, Westfield Leader, 1/25, page 1
Rumored Morale Problems Plague the Cranford Municipal Building
Within a short period of time Cranford employees have quit. A few examples:
Zoning Officer
Township Engineer
Downtown Business & Economic Development Director
Police Chief
Assistant Zoning Officer
Township Clerk
Tax Collector


Casino Avenue/Irene 2011
Casino Avenue/Irene 2011

 Published:  Saturday, August 25, 2012, 11:30 PM
By Ryan Hutchins/The Star-Ledger

CRANFORD—As so many did a year ago, Joe LoGiudice watched as the rain fell and the water rose, turning his property and others near it into one continuous lake. 

“The water kept coming closer and closer to my house,” the Cranford resident recalled one recent afternoon as he stood in his backyard, staring into the swampy woods behind it.  “Had the rain not stopped, it would have come into all these houses.”

Cranford was the Union County town hit hardest by Tropical Storm Irene, which blew through the Garden State Aug. 27 and 28.  Hundreds of homes and business were underwater.  Government buildings flooded.  It was a devastating experience, even for a town nicknamed “Venice.”

LoGiudice is among the lucky members of his community; the water rose to within a stone’s throw of his Wadsworth Terrace house, then it receded.

But the 51-year-old doesn’t feel any sense of relief, nor do his neighbors who survived the storm with little to no damage to their homes.  They’re worried the worst is yet to come and think a high-density housing development—one planned for a lot a block away from LoGiudice’s home—will be the reason.

The project, a 360-unit complex that would be constructed on a 16-acre site in Cranford’s north side, is derided by local officials and residents alike.  They all worry it will make the flooding worse, upsetting a delicate balance between wetlands and dry land.  The developer and its experts say the building won’t cause any new flooding and will actually improve drainage in some areas.  But those assertions have been little comfort to residents and township officials.

The fight to stop the development on Birchwood Avenue—now closer than ever to becoming a reality—has been going on for years, but it was Irene that electrified opponents.  Their fears embody just how bad the flooding was after the storm.

There was flooding in Rahway, Elizabeth, Springfield, Union, Mountainside and other towns.  Communities were bisected by floodwaters.  There was tens of millions of dollars in damage.  One early estimate put together by the county’s Office of Emergency Management figured the damage surpassed $100 million.  The federal government has pledged or paid more than $50 million in grants and loans to residents, business owners and governments in Union County.

Cranford was, without a doubt, left in the worst shape.  Residents canoed through the township’s downtown, flooding stretching for blocks.  The municipal complex and police department were underwater.  Nearly 1,300 residences—or more than 15 percent of the township’s houses—had significant damage, officials said as the waters began to recede.  Some 200 houses had flooding up to the first floor.

Brookside Place School, which had 2 feet of water inside it, was closed for months—displacing students and teachers.  The damage there cost more than $1 million to repair, much of it reimbursed by the federal government.  The first floor of the municipal building is still closed, the damage totaling some $3 million, officials say.

But as bad as it was, they all say the Birchwood development would make it worse.

“I think it’s going to be devastating,” Mayor David Robinson said.  “Absolutely devastating.”

The site, about 16 acres in size, is in a quiet neighborhood thick with trees.  There’s vacant office space on the property, which is next to an assisted-living facility.  Across the street is the township’s recycling center.  And behind the property are woods—very wet woods, some considered wetlands—that stretch back to houses on Wadsworth Terrace, where LoGiudice lives.

After Irene, much of the property was underwater.  So was Birchwood Avenue.  That’s why local officials object to the housing project.

“The bottom line is:  It’s bad environmental practice.  It really is,” said Kevin Campbell, a township commissioner.  “You don’t want to put a 360-unit development in a swamp, near wetlands, near everything else.  It’s insane.”

But there are several acres of dry land there, and that’s where the developer would like to put the four-story residential buildings.  The company, Cranford Development Associates, is a subsidiary of the Paramus-based S. Hekemian Group.  The company successfully sued the township through a “builder’s remedy” case, arguing Cranford has a legal obligation to allow the high-density housing so long as at least 15 percent of the units are sold at affordable rates.

Superior Court Judge Lisa Chrystal ordered the township to change its master plan and zoning ordinance to allow for the development, and she took away the authority of the local planning board—handing it over to a special hearing officer who reports to her.  Site plan hearings have been going on for weeks, held in Superior Court in Elizabeth.

No one from the developer’s office could be reached to discuss the project.  Peter S. Hekemian, the parent company’s vice president for development, did not return two messages left at his office.  The company’s general counsel has been away on vacation.  But the group’s plans are made clear in court filings and through testimony during the ongoing site plan hearings in Elizabeth.

Despite the concerns of locals, they say they will be able to mitigate any issues with flooding and will meet state environmental requirements.  They have not yet received all the required state permits, and the height of Birchwood Avenue will need to be raised to do so, but they believe they will eventually be given the final go-ahead.

To avoid issues with storm water flooding, the project will include a large underground storage system, said Michael Dipple, an engineer hired to work on the project.  It’s a series of concrete vaults called the “storm trap.”

“Flow from the development will first go into the underground system.  It will be held for a period of time, and it will be released at a rate which then complies with” state standards, Dipple testified this month at the site-plan hearing.

That system and other steps the developer plans to take to avoid flooding issues miss a broader point, says Richard Marsden, the township engineer.  The site where the housing would be built is part of a much larger flooding plain—one that stretches across Cranford and into Kenilworth, he said.  It’s shaped like an hourglass, and filling in the ground on Birchwood could create flooding elsewhere, in areas that stay dry now, Marsden said.

“My argument is, by filling it in here, you’re going to restrict it—it’s going to back up,” he said.

It’s that prospect—and the memories of Irene, along with other storms of years past—that have so many people in the community up in arms over the development.  Some formed a group, Concerned Citizens of Cranford, and have hired an attorney to raise objections through the state Department of Environmental Protection.  So many people were interested in attending the site planning hearings that the township had a bus to drive residents to Elizabeth.  Even Gov. Chirs Christie, who lived in Cranford two decades ago, has weighed in.

“I’m concerned about this.  I’m concerned about it from a flooding perspective, in particular.  More building in Cranford, especially in that area, it doesn’t seem to me like it’s pretty wise,” Christie said earlier this year on his weekly radio program, “Ask The Governor,” on New Jersey 101.5.  He later added:  “If this thing is built, it’s going to make things significantly worse.”

That’s Liz Sweeney’s nightmare.  She lives on Wadsworth Terrace, on the opposite side from LoGiudice.  Sweeney, a member of the Concerned Citizens group, never had to worry about the flooding.  She will worry if the development is built, though.

“I fear that the project is going to alter Cranford forever.  I fear that it is going to flood everywhere,” she said.  “I fear I’ll have to move.”