EAST BRUNSWICK, NJ - In a decision handed down last Friday, Middlesex County Superior Court Judge Thomas McCloskey has allowed Alfieri Property Management of Edison, the developers of the property between Hart's Lane and Tices Lane known as Hidden Oak Woods to begin the clearing process at that location to prepare for construction. East Brunswick had asked for a stay of the judge's order to allow the clearing and construction to begin. The Township was denied the request.
As of now, the developer will be able to knock down tree and buildings "at their own risk," said Mayor Brad Cohen in an interview. Resistance to the development has been centered on the location's importance to the Lawrence Brook Watershed and the damage that would be incurred if the woods were cleared.
In 2016, as part of East Brunswick's compliance with New Jersey's Council on Affordable Housing (COAH) requirements, East Brunswick settled with the state to allow the development. "The courts looked kindly on East Brunswick due to this quick settlement," said Cohen. East Brunswick was then required to add 315 additional units to those already in place within the township. Many of those units would be built into Hidden Oak Woods.
Since then, the township has worked on putting forth effort on the East Brunswick Redevelopment Zone between the NJ Turnpike and Ferris Street on Route 18 South which would also relieve some COAH burden. However, Cohen insists, the issue with Hidden Oaks Woods does not have to do with resistance to complying with the COAH. It has to do with damaging the watershed. Last year, East Brunswick faulted Alfieri for not having a current Letter of Interpretation with regard to the locations environmental status.
The first is the lack of a current "Letter of Interpretation" from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection showing that the area is free and clear of wetlands. The last letter for this property was issued in the early 2000's. It was given extensions during the recession in 2008 to stimulate economic growth. However, following an upsurge in building, the letter expired in 2017 and is no longer valid.
According to the NJDEP's Division of Land Use, "Previously misunderstood as wastelands, wetlands are now being recognized for their vital ecological and socioeconomic contributions. Wetlands contribute to the social, economic, and environmental health of our nation in many ways:
Wetlands protect drinking water by filtering out chemicals, pollutants, and sediments that would otherwise clog and contaminate our waters.
Wetlands soak up runoff from heavy rains and snow melts, providing natural flood control. Wetlands release stored flood waters to streams during droughts."
The Wetlands at this location in East Brunswick are part of the Lawrence Brook Watershed, a 48-square-mile area, that extends over parts of 5 municipalities: New Brunswick, East Brunswick, North Brunswick, South Brunswick, and Milltown; it also covers most of Rutgers University's Cook Campus. The whole watershed is located in Middlesex County. (Lawrence Brook Watershed Partnership)
The East Brunswick Planning Board suggested that it is likely that the "standards may have changed" for the footprint of the property and the wetlands might be compromised by building at the location. Indeed, the design features sizeable retaining walls to prevent possible flooding.
Cohen said that the LOI matter is still outstanding and that he would discuss with the Township Council whether to appeal the ruling by Judge McCloskey. "I need to talk with Council members to see if they want to go to the Court of Appeals which would involve more expense and time," he said.
For now, the clearing of the location can begin, despite its impact on the wetlands and the traffic on Tices Lane.