Increased traffic, crowded public schools, and sewage lines crossing a wetlands were among the concerns raised at a community meeting this week where West Orange residents voiced fear and frustration about the development of a 120-acre forest near the Essex Fells border.
The crowd of about 80 people left without many answers, only with the assurance from Mayor Susan McCartney that the four-building, 496-unit project must eventually come before the township’s planning board.
The forest is owned by the West Essex Highlands, Inc, a Short Hills-based developer that has been trying to build hundreds of homes on the western ridgeline of the Watchung Mountains for nearly three decades.
In 2020, the township reached a settlement with West Essex Highlands, Inc, which filed a builder’s remedy lawsuit. Such lawsuits allow a developer to go ahead with a project — even one previously denied by the planning board, which happened in 2006 — if it can help a township meet its affordable housing obligation.
West Orange has a deficit of more than 500 units of affordable housing and little developable land left. Hence why previous administrations have not opposed the development — despite having the opportunity to do so —instead trying to strike a precarious balance between development and environmental protection.
Wednesday’s presentation was similar to the one Wayne DeFeo, the township’s environmental compliance officer, gave the town council three years ago, when he tried to convey to residents that, although the development was all-but inevitable, the plan would disturb only a quarter of the forest, despite the owner having “every legal right” to develop more, he said
West Essex Highlands, Inc. has met resistance the entire way. Construction of additional townhomes in the forest was initially halted in 1987. That year, environmentalists fought for legislation to protect freshwater wetlands with a 300-foot buffer. That distance was necessary to filter out water before it reaches a tributary, they argued. The laws on the books today are the result of a “compromise” with the New Jersey Builders Association, according to Emile DeVito, manager at the New Jersey Conservation Foundation. It requires only a 50-foot barrier of protection around wetlands.
“Fifty feet is nothing,” DeVito told the Four Oranges. “We almost never follow science because the special interests groups don’t care about science — they only care about making money.”
The forest includes the headwaters of the Canoe Brook Reservoir, a source of drinking water for municipalities like Short Hills and Essex Fells, meaning the decisions made in West Orange also affect residents of nearby municipalities who fear development could worsen floods and water quality.
“It already floods here in ways that would not be comprehensible to people 30 years ago. Everything that comes down that hill ends up in that water, ” said Joe Panullo, who lives in Essex Fells along the border of the forest. “Is there a need for affordable housing? Yes. Does that come at the expense of public safety – whether it’s traffic or drinking water?”
Nevertheless, DeFeo argues that the current proposal has minimal disturbance of the forest and other sensitive environmental features like the ridgeline. “No wetlands are being built on, no wetlands are being disturbed,” said DeFeo, noting that the “only exception” is a roadway that crosses over a body of water.
It’s still unclear how the developer will contest concerns about traffic safety. In 2006, a local organization called WeCare hired a traffic engineer who testified in a report that the “amount of traffic to be utilizing Warner road from the proposed development would be way in excess of the 250 trips per day that the RSIS requires,” the report states.
“The West Orange planning director at the time said in her view the maximum capacity for that property was 65 single-family homes,” Paul Tractenberg, a member of WeCare, said at last week’s meeting.”Nonetheless at 136 homes, the police and fire department thought it was too dangerous to have a single access road – now you’re proposing 500 units?”
DeVito believes that all hope of preserving the forest is not lost — he believes Mayor McCartney should condemn the land and protect it as a reservation.
“This land has the same qualities of the other reservations along the Watchung Mountains,” DeVito said. “It should be preserved.”
West Orange’s most recent master plan update mentions preserving open space and the need to ensure public safety from floods. There is a long section that mentions protecting wetlands and ridgelines. “The 2010 Reexamination Report noted that one of the principles of the Master Plan was to protect natural features and environmental resources including, but not limited to, floodplains, wetlands, woodlands, steep slopes, ridgelines, and areas valuable as scenic, historical, cultural, or recreational resources,” the report states.
“Townships have broad powers they seldom use,” DeVito said.