East Brunswick residents form coalition to stop development plan

Residents attending community meeting to learn more about the Hidden Oak Woods proposed development plan on Aug. 9 at the YMCA.

EAST BRUNSWICK–A group of concerned residents formed the “Preserve East Brunswick Pine Barrens Coalition” to establish opposition toward the Hidden Oak Woods development plan.

Local historian and former township resident Rich Walling served as the host to a community meeting to inform residents about the proposed development plan and to help establish an ad-hoc coalition to oppose and address concerns pertaining to the project.

Alfieri’s Hidden Oak Woods development plan is proposing the construction of seven four-story buildings, with 275 residential units, each building expected to be under 50 feet in height. Fifty five of those units would be affordable housing units. The property is approximately 45 acres, located at Harts Lane and Titus Road and Eagle Road and Mill Brook Court, according to Township Planner Steven Gottlieb.

The proposed development plan also includes a clubhouse; an amenity area; a pool; lighting, landscaping, a sidewalk and signage, according to Alfieri’s attorney Frank Petrino.

More than 25 residents attended the meeting on Aug. 9 at the YMCA when Walling voiced concerns regarding the property’s environmental landscape and Alfieri’s proposed affordable housing units.

“Very little information about this project has been directly shared with the community. For example, the East Brunswick Environmental Commission’s thorough report is buried in the paperwork and its recommendations have not been publicly aired and discussed. The commission has grave concerns about the impacts of this development on the environment,” said Walling, who now lives in North Brunswick.

The property has auto-wrecking yards, several large warehouses, which have high-volume noise issues, and the Tices Lane Park nature preserve in the surrounding area. The YMCA that is located near Eagle Road will be doubled in size and be traversed by many additional hundreds, if not thousands, of vehicles per day, according to Walling.

On July 18, the Planning Board heard testimony regarding the project from Alfieri’s engineering and architecture expert during the board’s meeting at the municipal building.

Alfieri’s architect David Minno said there is a requirement that the township has which he thinks is a good one, where no two Council on Affordable Housing (COAH) units are to be adjacent to one another in the floor plan.

“That’s a higher bar than most townships set, but we’ve met that,” Minno said.

During the board’s meeting, Walling said Alfieri’s attorney and experts “presented public testimony in which they made direct and declaratory statements about their COAH obligation and how the COAH units will be integrated within the [buildings]. You will see on their plans that was a misstatement of facts, to put it politely. In their COAH building [called] unit B all the COAH units are all jammed into for the most part.”

Councilman James Wendell, who attended the meeting, said that building a large number of COAH units next to each other is against the township’s Housing Element and Fair Share plan.

The property is part of the northern-most outlier of the New Jersey Pine Barrens and is located adjacent to Tices Lane Park. It is also home to wetlands habitat and the Saw Mill Brook, according to Walling.

These Pine Barrens, known as the Spotswood Outlier, are identified on the New Jersey State Plan as a critical environmental site and are crisscrossed with wetlands, including streams and an open pond. It represents the last major unprotected habitat in East Brunswick for wildlife associated with this type of forest, according to Walling.

“We have Middlesex County Planning Board approval for this particular development. We have review letters from the Soil Conservation District dated Jan. 24. … We got a second review memo on May 25, which had one comment,” Alfieri’s attorney Frank Petrino said. “We’ve also received from the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) a flood hazard area verification. That’s dated June 6, 2008. We’ve also received from DEP a wetlands general permit to fill isolated wetlands. That was issued by DEP on June 20.”

Walling said wetlands protection can only be effective if all the wetlands are identified and the wetlands on the property have not been to-date.

“There is another major issue involving wetlands associated with this forest type. I spent nearly three hours out there [on Aug. 9] and photographed and mapped much more wetland area that was previously shown on a delineation map from 2011, which was the basis of the DEP rule one letter of approval,” Walling said. “I also located several potential ecological pond sites.”

Pinelands Preservation Alliance Trustee Emile DeVito said he is currently the science director at the New Jersey Conservation Foundation and was the former chairperson of the Middlesex County Open Space Committee in the early 1990s.

“Your town can request a meeting with the [DEP] on-site to walk the site with your local expert who knows the site and say, ‘Hey, I want to check every single place here. … Is their line accurate? Are there vernal ponds?’ You know, all those sorts of things,” DeVito said.

DeVito said the coalition should try to get the YMCA to endorse saving all the land because it’s adjacent to their facility.

Spearheaded by Walling, residents decided to form the Preserve East Brunswick Pine Barrens Coalition. Residents also decided to establish sub-committees within the coalition to address concerns they have pertaining to the project that includes traffic; environment/wetlands/water quality; community outreach to groups like the YMCA; Lawrence Brook Watershed Partnership; and open space linkage.

Alice Daigneault said she lives near the proposed development plan property.

“It takes me 15 minutes to drive two miles and that is without extra cars. I get off the turnpike at 5:35 p.m. I don’t get into my house until 6:05 p.m.,” Daigneault said.

Csilla Tomei said she attended the planning board meeting on July 18.

“They talked about how this will be such a desirable place for most millennials to live. I am just thinking for the amount of rent they are going to charge why wouldn’t you if you were a millennial, live in New Brunswick. … [They] want millennials to be attracted to this property, yet it’s not directly connected to public transport,” Tomei said.

The Planning Board’s next meeting is scheduled for 8 p.m. on Aug. 22 in the municipal courtroom, which is located at 2 Jean Walling Civic Center Dr.

For more information about the coalition, visit the group’s Facebook page.

For more information about Hidden Oak Woods, visit www.eastbrunswick.org/content/885/101/default.aspx.

Contact Vashti Harris at [email protected].