Construction began last December on a small parcel of land across from Palisades Medical Center in North Bergen, an attempt by Avak Properties and U&G Development to build three retail stores.
Controversy quickly followed, since activists do not believe that area of the Palisade cliffs on River Road needs more development.
Avak Properties, LLC purchased land from North Bergen in a private auction last year. They, along with U&G Development, plan on building a Walgreens, Bank of America, and coffee shop, amounting to 20,752 square feet and 107 parking spaces.
The suit was filed Oct. 15.
The Township of North Bergen, which saw the project potentially bringing in more taxes to the town, contended that the project could be built safely and that its development was not a county matter.
Then a document from the County of Hudson Department of Parks, Engineering, and Planning stated that the parcel consisted of approximately 71 percent “steep slope.” The document claimed that building could affect the structural integrity of J.F.K. Boulevard East, which is nearby.
The document also stated that the Hudson County Master Plan was amended in 2002 and 2008 to protect steep slopes, as did the Hudson County Land Development regulations. They also state that the decision violated the State Water Quality Management Planning Rules, which state that slopes with grades over 20 percent should not be developed because of safety and water issues.
The developer had planned at that time to remove 105,000 cubic yards of soil and rock from the base of the cliff, which some believed would mar what they consider to be natural monument.
After a heated county Planning Board meeting attended by more than 100 members of the public on both sides, the project was passed. Planning Board Attorney Thomas Calvanico explained that a variance could be granted because of the “extraordinary hardship to the owner, peculiar to the property.”
But during the controversy, members of the community formed the Coalition to Preserve the Palisades Cliffs (CPPC). After the June 17 county Planning Board meeting, CPPC requested a public hearing with the Hudson County Board of Chosen Freeholders, since they are the organized body that responds to decisions and also votes to put county regulations into place.
The freeholders declined to hold a public hearing for them.
So on Oct. 15, the group filed a lawsuit in Superior Court against the Hudson County Freeholders, the Hudson County Planning Board, Avak Properties, and U&G Development.
“After being ignored by the Board of Chosen Freeholders, we had no choice but to take our case to a higher level,” said Peggy Wong, the president of CPPC, who is a North Bergen resident.
No public hearing
The CPPC has filed eight counts in their suit against the development.
The first is their denial of a public hearing, which they said was required by state law.
According to the New Jersey Statutes for County Planning, “Any person aggrieved by the action of the county Planning Board in regard to subdivision review and approval or site plan review and approval may file an appeal in writing to the board of chosen freeholders within 10 days ….”
The second count states that approval of the development violates the Hudson County Land Development Regulations, while the third claims that the hardship waiver was granted without any financial proof that the developer would suffer if it was not.
The fourth count states that the public was stopped from asking questions of the developer’s expert witnesses, although in the beginning of the meeting, it was promised that they could.
According to the fifth count, 13 conditions of the approval violate state law.
During the meeting, many members of the public questioned the credibility of Calisto Bertin, the engineer for the project. They complained that he was also the engineer for the Churchill Estates development, which also removed sections of the Palisades. Some have said that that development has caused mudslides.
At the time of the June meeting, an engineering report by Medina Engineering, the firm the county hired, had not yet been completed. North Bergen hired Luma Oweis of Oweis Engineering to oversee the project, who stated the safety of the project would be an ongoing process that wouldn’t be known immediately.
Last week, North Bergen Spokesperson Phil Swibinski said that the township still is under contract with Oweis and that the development will be built safely, or not at all. He also said that the annual $200,000 of tax revenue and new jobs will be beneficial to that area of North Bergen.
PCCP is being defended pro bono by Susan J. Kraham, Esq. and Edward Lloyd, Esq. of the Columbia Environmental Law Clinic, as well as Renee Steinhagen, Esq. of the New Jersey Appleseed Public Interest Law Center.
Wong explained that any fees incurred from the suit will still be picked up by the CPPC, so they are still actively fundraising for their case.
Project moves forward
According to Swibinski, the project has continued to move forward. As agreed to at the Planning Board meeting, Oweis and Medina, along with the county engineering department, must approve all changes to the development.
“The county has had a nice ongoing dialogue throughout this process,” said Swibinski. “Whenever Avak has had a plan with what they wanted to do, it’s done through Oweis and the county, and they’ve come up with a consensus and they’ve allowed it go forward.”
Numerous phone calls to Oweis to follow up on what has been accomplished were not returned in time for publication. When visiting the site, some of the southern portion of the parcel appears to have been stabilized.
Phone calls to both Calvanico and Edward Florio, the attorney representing the freeholders, were not returned.
Tricia Tirella may be reached at TriciaT@hudsonreporter.com.