Trees Cut Along Rahway River in South Orange

June 6, 2010 at 3:31 PM 2 comments

In a classic case of can-it-get-dumber? government, the Army Corps of Engineers, which has jurisdiction over the nation’s rivers, and flooding, ordered South Orange Village to cut down the trees that had grown up along the Rahway River’s embankment on Clark Street (east branch of the river).  Without questioning the order, the Village’s DPW employees took a buzz saw to the trees last Tuesday, and it looks just awful.  Clark Street residents had a green view,  and now look at a broken chain fence and a concrete flume.

Yet  South Orange, with federal, state and county partners, just invested in a river bank restoration greenway project that includes the riverbank planting of trees (yes, trees!) along with native flowering plants and bushes, a few hundred feet downstream from where the Corps ordered the trees cut down along the same river.  The greenway project, with new plantings, is getting rave reviews from residents Village-wide.

How can government restore trees, and prize aesthetic design with one hand, and saw them down with the other, in such a stunning, and proximate, display of seemingly polar opposite policy?  If it were merely a right hand-left hand, different-level-of-government problem, that would be sad, but understandable.  Eventually, the trees would grow back.  I regret to report that it’s worse.

In ordering the trees cut, the Corps invoked its “levee policy,” which requires that vegetation be removed with 15 feet of a river’s embankment, or levee, to prevent flooding. The Corps gave the Village Engineer notice of that requirement in letter dated August 2009, apparently with no thought whatsoever to the fact that the same Corps district office had approved the tree and plant river bank restoration project, a few years back, and which has just come to fruition, southward for a half mile.

The South Orange Village Engineer, who also oversees the river greenway restoration project, first defended the tree-clearing, then later said he’d argued with the Corps over the need to cut down the trees.  Whatever, but since August 2009, neither the Village Engineer nor the Village Administrator told the South Orange Board of Trustees, or the advisory committee on the river greenway project, about the impending tree- and bush-clearing.  As a trustee, and chair of the river greenway committee since 2005,  I found out about the tree-clearing when a Clark Street resident called me Wednesday, and about the August 2009 letter later last week.

Could anything have been done about it?  Yes!  The Corps has a variance policy– the Village could have asked for an exception, to allow at least some vegetation to remain.  Given the Corps’ approval of the riverbank restoration project just a few hundred feet downstream, the chances can’t be nil.  The Engineer didn’t know about the levee vegetation variance policy.

A variance would ensure that even though some trees have already been cut, that the planting scheme and design from the restoration project can be carried through on Clark Street.  This would provide some visual relief for residents.

The Army Corps’ levee policy has drawn nationwide criticism, in places as far away from South Orange as Sacramento, and Seattle, since the Corps started enforcing it, post-Katrina.  (The Corps was found  liable for the levee breach in New Orleans– which had nothing to do with trees, but rather was caused by flawed design.)  Experts, engineers, and professors have testified at hearings that trees actually make levees stronger and more flood resilient, while the Corps insists that tree roots compromise levees and allow animals to burrow in, creating holes.  Environmentalists point out that trees, shrubs and other riparian vegetation provide shade to cool rivers, nutrients, and provide habitat that encourage bugs that fish eat.

Those of us who have been working to restore the banks of the east branch of the Rahway River through the Village of South Orange for ten years used to think of the Army Corps as the white hat agency, because it took us just one meeting with their New York District engineers to get approval of South Orange’s plan to restore the river banks, including the planting of trees and flowering plants and bushes.

That’s compared to the 593 days that South Orange’s stream encroachment and wetlands permit applications, required for the greenway project, languished at NJDEP.  Now we’re wondering whether the Corps just wasn’t paying very close attention.  At least NJDEP’s Ray Cantor has promised to expedite permits for green projects such as this one, under the new State administration.  We’ll see how the Corps  deals with the Village’s variance request, assuming one is submitted.  Stay tuned.

Entry filed under: Environment, Land Use, Politics, Transportation. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. kenkrasnerhomes  |  July 21, 2010 at 10:46 PM

    any updates?

    Reply
    • 2. Janine G. Bauer, Esq.  |  January 17, 2011 at 9:09 AM

      Not yet. The Army Corps of Engineers has not yet released the report of its inspection of our “levee” and thus we are in a holding pattern.

      Reply

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