Upper Saddle River Joins Hillside Association v. the Airmont Project

May 12, Upper Saddle River, NJ

In an impressive show of support, an estimated 150+ New Jersey neighbors met at the Church of the Presentation in Upper Saddle River to extend their help to the Hillside Avenue Preservation Association in its opposition to the proposed development on Hillside Avenue. They were there also to explain what measures they were taking on their own behalf since the project will negatively impact their community as well.

Present were local political representatives of Upper Saddle River, including Mayor Ken Gabbert and Councilman Dennis Schubert, lawyers from both sides of the border, Bill Sheehan (the Hackensack Riverkeeper) and the three moms who helped get the movement started (actually reprised from 1982), Karen Miller and Lynda Rufo from the New Jersey end of the street and Joan Martinelli from the easterly New York side.

A Shared Problem

Mayor Gabbert explained that the ultimate goal is regional, involving Upper Saddle River, Montvale, and Allendale, as well as Airmont. The improper land use would create health and safety problems on both sides of the border. There already is sewage emptying into the Saddle River from New York and greater demands placed on the shared aquifer (the Newark Basin) would threaten both localities.

Bob Graves, a resident on Hillside, reviewed the history of the first application back in 1982 when another church put in an application to build a house of worship on the same 19-acre plot. That request was turned down, and one reason was safety issues that would be created by increased traffic.

Jay Perez, a home-owner on the Jersey side of the hill, spoke about misconceptions people have about the application. That "Itís a done deal"; that the RLUIPA legislation will make it impossible to win; and that "This is a New York problem."

Jay is a lawyer, and he has reviewed the settlement signed in January by Mayor Layne of Airmont and the Board. He explained the agreement did not create a fait accompli by the court. There have been cases brought where RLUIPA applications have been denied, and, of course, itís not just a New York problemóthe neighborhood affected is in two states, but itís one neighborhood.

A project like this, Jay explained, will change the character of the neighborhood, it will create serious traffic problems, and it will worsen existing water problems.

David Gates, resident on Hillside for 45 years, summarized the problems that would ensue if the Village of Airmont permits the project. You can read his narrative here.

Captain Bill Sheehan explained some of the Federal environmental issues and pointed out agencies that would be willing to help. He advised all not to give up because youíre on the right side of an important issue. He also wondered out loud why Rockland County or some other governmental agency had not already purchased the land to set it aside.

What Is Being Done Already

Mayor Gabbert explained that he had been busy getting local politicians on board including the County Executive. The borough has hired a land use attorney and two other experts to study traffic and the aquifer. Legal proceedings have been initiated against Airmont for the first Planning Board meeting that was illegally held in an overcrowded Village Hall (details here).

Joan Martinelli explained the Article 78 proceeding filed by the Hillside Avenue Association. Not only did the Airmont Board and Mayor Layne wrongfully exclude the public during the vote to accept the settlement of the lawsuit, they did not get a super majority vote, required because the County Planning Board opposed the application (details here).

If both legal actions are successful, the Airmont Board will have to go back to step one and vote again on the settlement (the vote may be different this time since the makeup of the Board has been changed by an intervening election), and the Planning Board will also have to take a step back.

These are staying actions, though, and most of the speakers this evening emphasized that the real issues are health and safety. Sewage periodically overflowing onto Airmont Streets and emptying into the Saddle River are both serious health hazards, and the latter violates Federal Law. The Newark Basin aquifer is a limited source and uncontrolled development on the Rockland side is approaching a critical point of no return (see these recent articles in the Journal News: Time is Running Out, Protect the Watershed, Walk the Talk, Officials). Hillside Avenue has sight and distance problems identified in a traffic study done 23 years ago. Increases in traffic have done nothing to improve the situation. Hillside used to be purely a local road, but it has become the second leg of a cut-through (Pine Brook Road is the first) for commuters going to and from work.

The meeting closed with a request of all present to "pool their talents," and there was a sense that serious momentum was gathering.

Michael Castelluccio