BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ: The town council discussed details surrounding a potential sewage infrastructure project that would significantly improve storm drainage during Tuesday's council meeting. The meeting was held virtually through the online meeting platform Zoom due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Tuesday’s meeting expanded upon a presentation held in August entitled “The Westside Draining Survey.” During last month's meeting, engineers shared a drainage study covering the problematic west side of town where storm flooding caused by an inadequate drainage infrastructure has plagued residents.

The follow-up presentationpdf was led by the Berkeley Heights Township Engineer Thomas Solfaro in which further improvements were discussed. According to a rough and preliminary estimate given by Solfaro, costs could potentially be around $15 million and take approximately three years or more to complete.

Our newsletter delivers the local news that you can trust.

The details presented by Solfaro have not reached the phase of a finalized plan that could be acted upon by the town council. Improvements to the drainage system would overhaul pipes running underground in order to improve “water conveyance,” or in other simpler terms, the pipe infrastructure’s ability to carry water.

Water backup or poor “conveyance” of water is what leads to flooding as well as water backup on streets and residential property.

The Westside Study includes streets that all share the same drainage basin. These streets falling within the study zone indicated through a map as part Solfaro’s PowerPoint presentation, include Sawmill and Deep Dale drive; Arden, Rosegate and Tree Top court; Orchard, Emerson and Tanglewood lane; Rogers Place and Hillcrest, Mountain and Plainfield avenue.

Neglia Engineering Associates, the firm conducting the drainage study [which Solfaro is also an employee] built on their August presentation.  

“Since that meeting in August, this office was able to perform additional various modeling scenarios which now show additional proposed modifications to the storm sewer system which now demonstrates the capability of safely conveying a 25-year storm event,” said Solfaro. 

He noted the additional proposed modifications are a further improvement from the August presentation which demonstrated the proposed system’s ability to deal with the heavy rainfall associated with “10-year storm event” and a vast improvement over the current conveyance infrastructure in town which is unable to deal with the more modest rainfall from 1-year storm event in certain areas.

He also clarified that the standard model for a new development for a municipality's conveyance infrastructure is the system’s ability to withstand a 25-year storm event.

Multiple Stages

If Berkeley Heights were to undertake the drainage improvement project, it would be broken up in multiple stages. This would require the township to prepare appropriate construction documentation including permit applications and supporting documents to state and county entities. This according to Solfaro’s presentation.

Tuesday’s presentation indicated that funding for the project could come through very low interest loans from the New Jersey Infrastructure Bank (NJIB.)

Solfaro noted that his office and other offices within the township, including the finance department and administrator’s office, had a “pre-project meeting” with the NJIB on Sept. 15.  

“Borrowers can typically save anywhere from 25 to 50 percent of their loan amount versus the project being independently financed through their own bonding mechanisms,” explained Solfaro.

In order to secure a loan and potential funding offered by the NJIB which is setup to support in-state clean water projects like improvements to the township’s poor conveyance system; Berkeley Heights would have to secure permission from residents whose property occupies areas requiring construction of the existing storm sewer system.

These formal consent agreements called “easements,” require the township to secure permission from property owners living atop drainage infrastructure in need of construction for the plan were to become reality.

“The property owners are part of the project – they are part of the process,” said Solfaro. It will be a joint effort between the town and the property owners. The property owners would have to cosign with the township."

Residents cosigning with the township would act as "consent forms," explained Solfaro. This allows for jurisdictional agencies to see the project as a "join project" 

Residents React

Residents were on hand to offer their reactions to the potential plan to combat flooding within the town, including reactions to Solfaro’s presentation.

“The map was really helpful in understanding the general layout of this particular pocket (in town,) but it also reminds me there are plenty of other areas of Berkeley Heights that perhaps, has similar topography issues,” said resident Jeff Varnerin. “We’re talking about putting in a pretty sizable investment to benefit this sliver of town, but I’m also thinking we’re probably going to ten times this if we are going to replicate this across the north side of Mountain Avenue and the other parts of Berkeley Heights.” Varnerin added, "It's not that I'm opposed to doing the work for the drainage on the west side of town, but I would want the council to consider that there's probably a broader problem. And we should be thinking more holistically for a broad solution. So, I say go for the project, but also think about how to get our view on the entirety of the problem." 

Urging the Town Council to take action was resident Patrick Fuhrmann.

“The issue here is time,” Fuhrmann said. “People use their homes, their value and equity to fund things like vacations, education and most importantly retirement. If we sit back and don’t give back, our home values are being depressed,” Fuhrmann said.

“We have to spend the money, the project clearly needs to be done,” Fuhrmann said.

The next Berkeley Heights Town Council meeting is scheduled at 7 p.m. October 6 and can be viewed online through the online platform Zoom.