The New York Times

Questions of Scale

By Tina Kelley

Oct. 23, 2005
Correction Appended

WEST ORANGE - IN the northwest corner of this hilly Essex County township, near the ridge of the second Watchung Mountain, 120 acres of land have been the subject of a 10-year battle. Now the home of mockingbirds and deer, the acreage, one of the largest undeveloped parcels in town, may soon be home to 136 families.

Some environmentalists, town officials and neighbors oppose the development, known as West Essex Highlands, saying it includes too many houses, its slopes are too steep, its wetlands are endangered and existing roads will be inadequate for increased traffic and emergency vehicles.

But the developer, West Essex Highlands Inc., which has developed condominiums adjacent to the parcel, contends that the plan preserves at least half the acreage at no cost to West Orange and that it meets the township's development requirements.

Mayor John F. McKeon said the township had gone through a seven-year lawsuit over the developer's contention that former township leaders had promised it the right to build 700 town houses on the site. Mr. McKeon said that he was pleased that the development had been scaled back, and that he considers the currently proposed 136 houses "very responsible."

But Paul L. Tractenberg, the president of We Care, a group of residents in the neighboring West Essex Highlands condominiums, testified at a Planning Board hearing last Wednesday that the parcel includes steep slopes that account for more than 40 percent of its total acreage and that it was near areas susceptible to serious flooding. He presented calculations showing that only 67 or 68 houses should be built on the property because of its slopes and wetlands.

"This is not just a run-of-the-mill tree-hugger effort to prevent a developer from doing what it's entitled to," Mr. Tractenberg said in an interview. "There are big-time problems" with the plan.

Under the current plan, sole access to the development is Oval Road. The West Orange Police Department's traffic bureau contends that this will overburden an already high-traffic area. State standards currently limit cul-de-sacs to 24 homes, Mr. Tractenberg said.

Opponents have questioned the town's decisions to modify zoning and other regulations that govern the site, including revising its rules concerning steep slopes. Susan Borg, West Orange's planning director, said that the slope rules were changed in light of a court decision that struck down similar laws in Manalapan, but that the West Orange laws would likely be revised again because a higher court had ruled in favor of the original Manalapan laws.

Francine Vlacich, a member of We Care, said that the area has flooding problems now. She scoffed at the 25 acres the developer set aside as open space, saying they were too steep to build on anyway. "They're giving snowballs in winter," she said.

Michel Cuillerier, vice chairman of the conservation committee of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club, said the development would require cutting more than 7,000 hardwood trees, which the developer plans to replace with less sturdy, younger softwood trees. The club's Essex County chapter opposes the development. "It is still too much for us, still too dense, still too many people up there," said Mr. Cuillerier, a West Orange resident.

Opponents of the development also question the developer's ability to build dry wells for drainage on a parcel that has relatively shallow soil on top of bedrock.

Amy Greene, an environmental consultant hired by opponents of the plan, said the site may be a habitat for threatened species including the Indiana bat, barred owl, red-shouldered hawk and long-tailed salamander. She recommended studies to determine if the animals are found on the property, in which case, she said, more of its wetlands would need to be protected.

"We observed additional wetlands on the property that are not shown on the wetland delineation map," she said. The parcel includes the headwaters of Canoe Brook, which feeds the Canoe Brook Reservoir, which serves East Orange.

Ms. Greene said that the federal Environmental Protection Agency considers the wetlands, which drain into the Passaic River basin, to be important in controlling flooding in the basin.

Mark Hoffman, West Essex Highlands' director of development, said the project's compliance paperwork was up to date. But he added that the development's proposed access points for emergency vehicles still require a special exception -- not considered a variance -- from the township.

Mayor McKeon said that the Planning Board, set to hear more testimony on Nov. 30, would address the issues of traffic and storm-water runoff. "This is 100-plus acres they're basically building as zoned, that are privately owned, and there is only so much that can be done," he said. "It would be one thing if it required us giving variances."

© 2005  The New York Times Company.   Reprinted by Permission.