Hackensack Riverkeeper, Bill Sheehan, told Patch that while it would have been "wonderful" if New Milford had been able to acquire the United Water property for open space preservation, the land itself is "post-industrial" and, as a whole, offers no environmental protection against flooding, as SOD (Stop Over Development) contends.
"While I agree that 221 residential units plus a shopping center is a helluva lot to shoehorn into 13 acres, if the redevelopment plan comports with stormwater and flood-protection regulations, there is no good reason for our organization to oppose it," Sheehan said.
Although the United Water property exists within the watershed property of the Hackensack River, Sheehan upholds, "The property was used for many years as an industrial site and is not considered wetlands, lowland forest, or an otherwise critical habitat."
According to Sheehan, the part of the United Water property that actually retains water is the back portion, "And that's not the property that is being considered for development," he said.
Sheehan told Patch that early in 2012 he was contacted by an anonymous donor who had $1.5 million to donate and asked him if he knew of a project where this money could be put to good use. The donor specified that the money would only be available for a limited amount of time.
"I immediately thought of New Milford and the United Water property," Sheehan said. "I reached out to Councilman Howard Berner with this donor's offer and told him that New Milford should grab this money and use it before it's gone." According to Sheehan, he never heard back from Berner.
Although the $1.5 million figure does not seem like a lot of money in light of the $8 million purchase price, Sheehan said that $1.5 million on the table would not only have been a good place to start, but it would have also represented an act of good faith.
"The balance of the cost of the property could have been pursued through Green Acres and Open Space funds," he added.
Given the fact that the purchase of the property was not pursued by the town and is now in the midst of a private sale, Sheehan is in support of Hekemian's original plan presented to the town in 2011.
"Hekemian’s original plan included the supermarket and strip mall, but zero residential units," Sheehan said.
Agreeing with Mayor Ann Subrizi's current position, Sheehan said, "The original Hekemian plan would have deeded several acres over to the borough for new playing fields and parking for New Milford High School and would have done more to alleviate flooding than what's before the zoning board now."
In speaking to Hekemian's current plan, Sheehan said, "There's no 'payday' for the town in the building of housing units," referring to the 221 units currently being proposed for the property by Hekemian.
"The cost of educating the children who live there, plus the demand on borough services, places a huge financial burden on the town," he said.
Which is why Sheehan said that he hoped Hekemian would revert to the original proposal whereby they would cede a critical portion of the United Water property to New Milford for a field and remove the residential component of the development.
Because, according to Sheehan, what will alleviate the flooding is if the High School field is returned to its natural vegetative state.
"The area that experiences the most flooding is the High School football field," Sheehan said. "What would help the residents of Columbia Street most is if the football field was returned to its natural vegetative state by planting trees so that it could absorb the water."
"If that happens," Sheehan said, "it will help to protect the homeowners on Columbia Street from the floods they have experienced."
Sheehan also pointed out that the opposition to any developmental plan for that property by SOD is an argument based on a threat to the quality of life, rather than a threat to the environment.
"There's a difference between an environmental protection argument, and a quality of life argument," Sheehan said.
The bottom line for Sheehan is that the United Water property is not considered to abut Category One waters. Category One waters are defined by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) as "waters protected from any measurable changes in water quality because of their exceptional ecological significance, exceptional recreational significance, exceptional water supply significance, or exceptional fisheries resources."
"As I’ve said to my friends in New Milford, if the land in question was wetlands, lowland forest or otherwise critical habitat, Hackensack Riverkeeper would
be fighting alongside them to preserve it from development," Sheehan said.
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