LITTLE FALLS, NJ -  The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE) and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) agreed to support a locally preferred plan when it came to flood mitigation along the Peckman River.

Several area officials and residents attended the NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) scoping meeting on Nov. 29 at the Little Falls Civic Center. The meeting was to provide an opportunity for the public and agencies to comment and raise issues regarding potential impact regarding flood mitigation remedies. Also present was a legislative aide of Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen.

The project calls for a 100-year flood protection plan. It was previously placed on hold for two years by the ACOE. The suspension, however, was lifted in early 2016 after pressure for local and state officials. The project entails flood wall installation and was touted by many area officials, including trustees of the Passaic Valley Flood Control Board, which has since disbanded due to lack of a quorum. 

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Other projects which call for a 50-year plan at $139 million, and a national economic development plan at $117 million, are still being considered.

The flood board was initially started in 2001 Little Falls and Woodland Park. Cedar Grove joined later that same year. It was created as a result of major storms, including Tropical Storm Floyd's impact to the area in 1999. Since its formation, the flood board has made numerous strides in obtaining state and county grants for flood mitigation programs along the Peckman and Passaic Rivers. As an advisory board, they have worked with the ACOE and have reported back their respective town councils.

However, last month, the Cedar Grove Township Council voted in favor of exiting the flood board due to a redirection in emphasis being placed on flooding from the Passaic River, according to Mayor Peter Tanella. 

Area officials say they are planning to regroup the flood board to possibly include other towns such as Totowa, that are flood prone due to the Passaic River. 

Alek Petersen, ACOE project manager, said no project can eliminate the risk of flooding.

"It's still flood susceptible, even with the flood risk management," he said during the meeting, adding that ways to manage and reduce the risk is a shared approach achieved from cooperation between federal government and local agencies. He also compared different flood plans during a slide presentation.

Tom Slowinski, of the NJDEP Bureau of Dam Safety and Flood Control, said the locally preferred plan was considered after reviewing various options when it came to flood mitigation and that the flood board's recommendation was a factor in choosing it.

"NJDEP commissioner Robert Martin totally supports the locally preferred plan and review," he said. "Though more costly, it will protect life and limb to the best that this project could entail."

Kim Rightler, ACOE project biologist, also spoke during the meeting and said the agency makes an effort to show governmental transparency when developing a project and issuing permits. 

"We have to demonstrate to the public that we followed every project our agency requires when developing alternatives," she explained. "We have to demonstrate we provided an opportunity for the public to review, assess, and comment on alternatives."

Rightler also said that disclosing potential environmental impacts are part of the overall scoping period, which can include recreational, socioeconomic, and community impacts. as as well as impacts to fish and wildlife. She also added the scoping period ends Dec. 28  and that the public would be given an opportunity to address concerns and/or give provide pertinent information to those assessing the plan.

Little Falls Mayor James Damiano said there were concerns about the locally preferred plan expressed when he and Woodland Park Mayor Keith Kazark met with ACOE representatives in Green Brook Township earlier in the year. He said the plan was recommended prior to becoming mayor in January this year. He noted several issues with the plan, of which flood wall heights were originally slated for 18 feet instead of 8 feet, and felt it would impact property values negatively. He also said the township was hit hard with recent buyouts from FEMA resulting in a loss of ratables. Concerns with traffic issues was another factor during a potential construction period of installing flood walls. He also emphasized the cost of the overall project for the township, roughly $40 million, which would be challenging to bond for since the annual budget for the township is $17 million.

"It may have been the locally preferred plan at some point but I do know it may need some issues addressed," he explained.

Petersen responded stating that the plan is still open for feedback. In response to Damiano's concerns, he noted that the maximum height for the flood walls would be 8 feet high, with an average closer to 6 feet high. Also noted was that roadway closures would be minimal during construction, primarily affecting only one roadway. A preliminary amount of three pump stations would be in effect. The buyouts would be about six or seven structures based on a new analysis.

Dorothy O'Haire, flood board secretary, said that the locally preferred plan was selected because the other plans "did nothing for Little Falls."

"We have the same problems we've had all along and erosion is the big problem on the Peckman River," she explained. "But if the government and the army corps say it's the only thing that can save people's homes and people's lives, you have two choices - do nothing or come to some sort of an agreement.  Little Falls is already known for flooding but we need to remedy the problem."

The environmental review will take another 30 days to draft.  

"Within the environmental impact statement, you usually have to do two public review periods," added Petersen.

After a tentative recommendation, a draft report will be released this coming March, according to Petersen, following a series of internal reviews by the ACOE. 

Tropical Storm Floyd resulted in the death of a Little Falls man, when the walls of his basement collapsed due to one of the worst flooding events in the town's history.