ROXBURY, N.J. - After it's inglorious end in the 1920s, the once miraculous Morris Canal was drained, paved, plowed under, ignored and forgotten in countless places across North Jersey.
History lovers who want to see its remains in Roxbury left alone are now concerned about a developer's plan to build a housing complex on land in Kenvil containing a section of the former engineering marvel.
The property owner, Roxbury Mortgage, LLC, has asked the township zoning board for a use variance that would allow construction of a 14-unit "townhouse community" for the physically handicapped. The buildings would be built on a wooded, 5-acre, triangular tract between Dell Avenue and Berkshire Valley Road.
A section of the defunct canal bed (called the prism) and its towpath run along the Berkshire Valley Road side of the property.
"We have extreme concerns and sensitivity to any impacts on the canal, and also any improvements that can be made by this application for the historic resource," wrote Roxbury Historical Advisory Committee Chairperson Barbara Cassidy in a March letter to the zoning board.
Although the committee acknowledged the land is privately owned and subject to development, it asserted that "development of the canal property is incompatible with its historic value" and urged township officials to protect the historical artifact.
The advisory committee not only wanted the canal preserved but also, if possible, beautified to some extent. "Is there any plan to provide restoration of the canal bed or any of the infrastructure? she asked, suggesting that such work could include refurbishing the towpath, clearing the prism and erecting "interpretive signage."
In June, Canal Society of New Jersey President Joe Macasek weighed-in on the matter. He sent a letter to Roxbury Planning Department Director Russell Stern.
"The Canal Society would like to voice its concern that the development of the project site will adversely effect (sic) the remains of the historic Morris Canal," wrote Macasek. "Although overgrown and compromised by road construction, significant remains of the canal prism and towpath berm are plainly visible."
Macasek said there are other pieces of the canal adjacent to the site, including a change bridge to the east and a mine tramway site to the west, that "make this a place of special interest as well as an important link between major sites along the Morris Canal Greenway."
Roxbury Mortgage did not return a call on Thursday. However, its engineer, R. Henry Huelsebusch of Denville was glad to talk about the matter.
He said the historians' concerns are unfounded because the new housing would be built on the Dell Avenue side of the lot, not near the canal. "We are not proposing to do any development in the area of the old Morris Canal," said Huelsebusch. "We are totally leaving that … wooded."
Huelsebusch said there will be a 70- to 80-foot buffer of trees between the proposed townhouses and the canal. Additionally, Roxbury Mortgage is amenable to "reasonable requests to make some improvements" to the canal said the engineer. This, he said, could be part of a "conservation easement" for that section of the site.
In an interview, Macasek said the Canal Society is "very pragmatic" when it comes to pushing for preservation of Morris Canal remains. The group is steadily piecing together sections of the 102-mile canal – stretching from the Delaware River in Phillipsburg to Jersey City – to create the Greenway, or trail, mentioned in his June letter.
The idea for Roxbury is to connect the canal remains in Ledgewood with those along Berkshire Valley Road into Wharton, where Morris Canal Lock 2 East in Hugh Force Park is being restored.
"There are remains of the canal running south past the (Roxbury Mortgage) site and past Succasunna," Macasek said. "Those assets would make an outstanding hiking or walking path that would connect up with other assets the township already developed as part of its trail system."
Huelsebusch said there will be a 70- to 80-foot buffer of trees between the proposed townhouses and the canal.
In a March letter to the zoning board, Stern, the town planner, pointed out that the proposed development might not be in the most convenient place to create housing for the physically handicapped.
"For the board's information, three multi-family developments are located in Roxbury with a total of 175 units that are either handcap accessible or readily handcap adaptable," Stern wrote. "They are provided with amenities associated with the complex and are walkable communities. The dwellings are situated in close proximity to retail stores, service, restaurants, offices, medical offices and are served by public sewer and water."
Non of those amenities exist near Roxbury Mortgage's land.
The project is scheduled to be discussed again by the zoning board at its Dec. 12 meeting.