The Hudson County Planning Board’s decision on whether a developer has the right to remove 700,000 cubic feet of soil and rock from the Palisades Cliffs in order to build three commercial businesses has been temporarily stalled. But the uproar over the project shows no sign of stopping.
North Bergen Township sold a parcel of land along River Road in a private auction last year to a developer, Avak Properties LLC. Avak then added an adjacent plot of land to that parcel, running alongside the cliffs and west to Palisades Medical Center.
Avak Properties won approval last September from the North Bergen Planning Board to develop the land into a Walgreens, a Bank of America, and a Starbucks. The three separate buildings would total 20,752 square feet and have 107 parking spaces.
Even though the project was given town approval and the developers started removing soil, the Hudson County Planning Board recently became involved, saying the project needs county approval as well because it is on River Road, a county road. This is the crux of a dispute between the town, which wants the project built, and the county, which may vote to fine the developer for starting work without county approval.
The County Planning Board had a hearing scheduled for this past Wednesday. The attorney for Avak Properties, Dennis Oury, filed for an adjournment with the board before their meeting stopping the board from voting on the project. However, the board was still able to meet and hear public comments on the project. They may render a decision at their next meeting in April.
The board can deny the application based on the Hudson County Master Plan, the Hudson County Land Development Regulations, or the State Water Quality Management Planning Rules, which state that “steep slopes” greater than 20 percent should not be built on because of water run-off, safety, and preservation issues.
The Avak Properties parcel is approximately 71 percent “steep slope,” according to documents from the County of Hudson Department of Parks, Engineering, and Planning.
“If approved,” county documents state, “the development could also undermine the structural integrity of JFK Boulevard East,” which runs atop the cliffs.
The Hudson County Master Plan was amended in 2002 to protect steep slopes and again in September 2008, when the Hudson County Board of Chosen Freeholders approved a master plan reexamination report that discouraged development on the cliffs.
The board could vote to fine Avak Properties $100 per day beginning on Dec. 8 and ending on Feb. 18, for a total of $7,200, because they believe that the owner began work on the land without receiving the county’s approval.
North Bergen officials contend that the developers do not need county approval for municipal projects, just on work related to county-owned roads and drainage.
Town in favor of development
North Bergen Town Administrator Chris Pianese contends that Avak Properties is not removing portions of the cliffs, but digging up the rocks and soil that hide them.
“We think it’s a good project with minimal impact on the view of the Palisades [with] one-level buildings,” said Pianese.
He also complained about the press and activists referring to the three stores as a “mall” last week.
“Calling it a mall is ridiculous,” he said. “Anyone who has been to a Starbucks, a bank, or a Walgreens knows exactly what they are… and are sorely needed in that area.”
Pianese said that because there are no stores readily available south of the cliffs, there is more traffic congestion in other areas.
He said denying this project would mean denying about $200,000 a year in tax revenue to North Bergen.
Residents opposing it
However, Cathy Friedman, who moved to the area last spring, said Wednesday night that she is afraid that more development along River Road will cause more traffic congestion. She said riding her bike at times is like “putting her life in her hands.”
“To have the river on the east of us, and to have the traffic, congestion, and commercialization so close immediately to the west of us, it almost cancels out the beauty and the value of the Hudson River,” said Friedman. “I think if you look at the U.S., if you look at New Jersey, if you look at the towns around us, if you look at the malls on Route 46, Route 17, Route 3, it’s a cookie cutter approach. How many cookies do you want in such a densely populated area?”
But Pianese said that there has always been commercial development in that area, and that rather than allowing a giant residential tower or something more dense, this group of buildings is an example of “smart growth.”
Pianese said that more than five years ago, when the lot in question was owned by two different people, it housed a soda beverage warehouse that totaled around 15,000 square feet. He said that the land was never zoned for recreation space, as activists have said on TV, and that none of the upcoming construction will include blasting or any other destructive practices.
Pianese said that part of the land was zoned as residential until the town changed it over a year ago, since town officials oppose any high rise development blocking the views of the Palisades.
“What’s wrong with removing the rock if you can do it without blasting and if it does not affect the integrity of the cliff itself?” asked North Bergen town spokesperson Paul Swibinski.
Problems in the past
Some of the controversy surrounding the project stems from the fact that the engineer for Avak Properties’ development, Calisto Burtin, is the same engineer who worked on nearby Church Hill Estates. Those townhouses, which are still being built and can be seen from River Road, sit on top of portions of the cliff that have been dug out.
A county document said that there were mud slides in the area. Now, to protect homeowners, chain-linked screens hang from the cliffs to protect residents from falling rocks. Pianese said that since the Church Hill issue, the township has been very sensitive to preserving the cliffs.
He said that this project is different because the cliffs are not being cut into, but uncovered.
Swibinski said that the Avak Properties situation should not be associated with Church Hill, since developments have been done by Burtin, the engineer, up and down the waterfront.
Preserving the cliffs
Peggy Wong, a North Bergen resident and activist, said that residents throughout North Hudson and beyond have been furious since Church Hill caused flooding issues and hacked away at “200 million years of history.”
“I’m afraid you think that it’s just [North Hudson] against the Palisades and it’s not true,” said Hoboken resident Helen Manogue, who attended the meeting. “In back of Hoboken, it’s a back drop of green, and it’s our only opportunity to see green in a city that only has four parks with trees. I’ve always looked at those cliffs and wondered how in God’s name can anybody allow those cliffs to be dug into and gouged out and destroyed because these are such wonderful, wonderful natural resources that we have.”
Anne Redlus, President of the New Jersey State Federation of Women’s Clubs, said that her organization defended the cliffs back in 1900 when New York City wanted to quarry them for their roads. She said then-Gov. Foster Voorhees said preservation was a hopeless task, but still, they were able to get the job done.
“Throughout the years, since 1896, there have been other issues that have arisen about the Palisades and the protection of them, and the Federation is here to save this section of the Palisades and to activate our members,” said Redlus.
Tricia Tirella may be reached at TriciaT@hudsonreporter.com.