Thursday, August 6, 2009

Do Your Homework...

Five years ago when my wife and I were house-hunting in suburban New Jersey, we fell in love with a 6 acre parcel bordered at the rear by a lovely stream. This stream is one of five which feed the Great Swamp, and then become part of the Passaic River. We have really enjoyed watching the seasons come and go along the stream, and one day we even caught a glimpse of a heron.

Last week, I happened upon my neighbor Frank one evening as I walked my dog. The same stream abuts both of our properties, but his house is closer to the water than mine. Importantly, he also has a direct view of a little island in the stream, about the size of a tennis court. The island is rocky and covered with underbrush --- generally it is considered an “eye sore.” Lately, area youngsters seem to have adopted the island, making it their “club house.” In the evenings they often gather after sunset and become disturbingly loud.

The Plan

My neighbor was upset about this island’s physical condition. But he was particularly disturbed by the “attractive nuisance” it represented to the youth who congregate there. He told me of his plan to privately bring in a bulldozer and level the island. He thought it would take less than an afternoon and that he would be making a great contribution to our neighborhood, all at his own expense ---- “it will be my gift,” he said.

As my dog and I continued our walk, I thought about Frank’s plan. I had several questions Frank had not answered. First, whose island was this, anyway? Secondly, I knew that to get a bulldozer into the water, the stream embankment would need to be cut and graded because of the sharp five foot drop-off to the water. Thirdly, did Frank know whether any conservation easements existed to buffer the stream corridor from just the kind of alteration that Frank was proposing? And finally, was destruction of the island the only, or the best, way to correct the problems that Frank saw? Frank liked to call himself “a man of action,” so he had not explored these questions. He said the bulldozer was coming in two days.

Doing Homework May Reveal Some Defects In The Plan

As my dog and I returned home that evening, Frank was still there, weeding a garden. I decided to share my concerns with him, and urged him first to consult with the Township Engineer. While the N.J. Department of Environmental Protection has general jurisdiction over fresh water wet lands and streams, small land use issues may sometimes be handled by local authorities, such as the Town’s Board of Adjustment. The Township Engineer should visit the stream site, I told Frank, and give his opinion about which agency can actually authorize the stream encroachment and give any required permits. I noted that the DEP vigorously enforces the New Jersey land use regulations with severe penalties.

Then we talked about the gathering of youngsters that Frank viewed as a noisy nuisance. “Frank,” I asked, “wouldn’t it be much easier to just ask the police to visit the area around the island periodically and bring order? And, it would not cost you ANYTHING!” Frank smiled and thanked me for the suggestion. He admitted that perhaps he had been a little impulsive, and that his plan of island removal was a bit drastic. We agreed that the Township Engineer probably would have some simple new suggestions for how to make the vegetation on the island less of an “eye sore,” while keeping the island largely the way nature had provided it.

Frank left me wondering just how often busy, well-intending people do not do their homework. This is one reason that not-for-profit environmental organizations like the Great Swamp Watershed Association are such a great resource for citizens facing a land use issue. With one phone call, impetuous Frank could have begun his homework and been sure to avoid some serious mistakes.

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