Berkeley Heights Township Council Adopts Riparian Zone Ordinance That Property Owners Say May Result in Loss of Their Rights

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Resident Paul Bakas protests the Riparian Zone ordinance at Tuesday’s Berkeley Heights Township Council meeting.
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BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ - Several areas of Berkeley Heights border streams, lakes, brooks and other bodies of water. Property owners who live in those areas fear an ordinance adopted Tuesday by a 4-2 vote of the Township Council could take away their rights to develop their property. They also are concerned about the cost of proving any development plans they have do not violate the measure.

The Riparian Zone ordinance limits the amount of development a resident or the township can do in specially zoned areas washed by bodies of water.

Township officials warn, however, that without the ordinance, Berkeley Heights could be prohibited from expanding its sewer system in the future. They said Tuesday the council had little choice but to pass the law, which they contend only is enforcing existing state law.

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Township Attorney Joseph Sordillo explained at Tuesday’s council session that the township needs state approval to expand its sewer system and the Riparian Zone ordinance is one of a number of state mandates that need to be met to get that approval.

If the approval is not given, he added, the township cannot permit further development.

Sordillo added the council had already removed from the ordinance a requirement for easements for those wishing to build in riparian zones and the ordinance adopted Tuesday allows Berkeley Heights more flexibility in enforcement of the zones because it is acting as the enforcement agent for the state.

Councilman Thomas Pirone said the township’s master plan says the municipality is supposed to make it easier for people to do things in the township but the new ordinance was not helping in that regard.

He also complained the engineering department was too quick to refer residents to state officials when they asked questions rather than helping them find ways to solve problems.

Replying to accusations that his office was too strict with a resident who wanted to build a treehouse, Township Engineer Robert Bocchino said the resident approached him with a concept he had in his head and did not even have a written plan for the treehouse.

He added as a courtesy he had told the resident how he could design the treehouse within the law without actually designing it for him.

Speaking against the ordinance, Paul Bakas of Lawrence Drive, whose property borders the Passaic River, said the measure was too general and laid a zone over an entire area without consideration for the specific area it was covering.

He also said he couldn’t understand how the state was more concerned about what he did with his property than with the salt dumped onto township roads during the winter that flows into the streams.

Council Vice President Craig Pastore, who, along with Pirone, voted against the ordinance, told Bakas his property probably would not be affected by the measure because the riparian zone along the Passaic River only extended for 50 feet beyond the river.

Pastore added, however, that those who live along the Green Brook and Blue Brook will be affected because the zone in those areas extends to up to 150 feet.

“The state is saying to us we do not have enough time or manpower to enforce this law, so you do it for us,” Councilman Robert Woodruff said.

He added, however, if the Department of Environmental Protection showed up and the township was not enforcing the law correctly the township could get in trouble.

Another resident, whose property borders a Green Acres area, said she fears she will have to pay to deal with erosion on the banks of a small body of water formed strictly by stormwater runoff.

She added personnel from an organization recommended to her by the DEP had told her a study to resolve the problem could cost up to $25,000. The firm also said the riparian zone measures were meant for much larger bodies of water such as trout streams and her township should contact a nearby community like New Providence to see what they had done to resolve such problems.

Councilwoman Elaine Perna noted Berkeley Heights in the past had received a full grant to install gabian or caged rocks along a stream bed to prevent erosion.

Sordillo noted, however, the riparian zone ordinance had nothing to do with soil erosion or stormwater runoff and the resident would have to deal with DEP regulations concerning those matters even in the absence of the ordinance.

In another action, the council Tuesday adopted a $1,167,000 bond ordinance to help pay for the township’s settlement with Lucent-Alcatel of a property tax assessment appeal.

The governing body also introduced an ordinance setting fees for use of the township senior citizen bus on days outside its normal schedule and for activities out the 35-mile limit of travel set by the recently adopted regulations for use of the bus.

A second measure would regulate more closely the terms and conditions of employment of crossing guards.

The public hearings and possible final adoptions of the two ordinances were scheduled for Tuesday, August 9.

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