Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Saving the Land

I was standing on a mountain top the other day, looking for hawks in the haze. It's not something I do every day because I don't like hard climbs. But the Land Conservancy of New Jersey had invited members of 10 years standing or more on this hike as a thank you for our membership and I couldn't say no.

We got to the top, greeted the men who come here every day during spring and autumn migration to count raptors, and rested. While up there the Land Conservancy's head guy, Executive Director Dave Epstein, pointed out the acres of trees leafing out below us.

This would have all been houses. The reason it isn't is due to a public-private partnership involving the state of New Jersey and several groups, including the Land Conservancy.

Wildcat Ridge. Now imagine the trees replaced by houses.

Where we were standing was Wildcat Ridge in Rockaway Township in Morris County, NJ, not all that far from where I live. Back when I became a member the group was called the Land Conservancy of Morris County. But there are many areas of the state threatened by overdevelopment, and so the name was changed to reflect the broadened mission of the Land Conservancy.

Standing on the mountain and trying to imagine a housing development below, I got the same feeling I get every time I go to Great Swamp (also in Morris County) and a plane flies over - I shudder. It was citizen action that stopped the plan for an airport to pave over this prime spot for God's creatures, particularly birds. The Helen Fenske visitor center is named for the head of the effort to save the Swamp.

These battles never end. They continue in Morris County.

Morris Plains is in a battle with the developer of the old Pfizer buildings on Route 53. The developer bought the land with plans to put in 500 apartments, condominiums and townhouses plus about 100,000 square feet of retail space, according to the borough website. The borough asked for changes The developer is suing, claiming the borough is shirking its affordable housing requirement.

Nearby Parsippany once approved what I call the Scar on Watnong Mountain, but is officially called Powder Mill Heights. It a multi-story apartment building atop a multi-story parking garage. It is an eyesore you can see for miles around, degrading the mountain it sits upon. I could see it from Wildcat Ridge.

Parsippany, the largest township in Morris County, more recently approved a developer's plan to put a Whole Foods, another retailer and 72 upscale townhouses on 26 acres of the undeveloped land currently zoned for office space. Nearby residents complained. Parsippany started to reconsider. The developer threatened to change the proposal to 530 rental apartments, designating 20% of them as affordable housing, which the developer said would force the zoning board to approve the plan because of its "beneficial nature."

That pissed off Parsippany and its residents, particularly the ones closest to the proposed development, who have already been raising money to fight the developer.

The developer wants to take down woods. Meanwhile, throughout Morris County there are vacant office parks. Hanover Township has allowed developers to clear-cut woods for a shopping center that has yet to be built, and which is located less than a mile from another shopping center that has struggled to keep tenants for years.

There is something about New Jersey that smells like money to be made, I guess.

The Kirkbride building.

At the border of my town and Parsippany is the Central Park of Morris County, which I will always refer to as Greystone. This land used to be a state mental hospital of that name. Morris County bought it for $1 when Gov. Christie Whitman ordered the old hospital closed down and a modern one built in a smaller parcel of land at the property’s western edge.

Whitman was a Republican, the same party that dominates Morris County politics. Subsequent governors who were Democrats said it was a land giveaway and the public would be better served if public housing went up.

That would've changed the entire character of the area and sent more traffic through my town.

That idea never took hold. However, the current governor, another Republican named Christie - as in Chris Christie - authorized the state to do a study of what could be done with the remaining property, in particular the hulking stone administrative building known as the Kirkbride Building.

Kirkbride was a wonder in its day, the biggest stone building of its type in terms of land mass until the Pentagon was built. While the county was busily demolishing the deserted stone wards to create a park, Kirkbride stood decaying, its bottom-floor windows boarded to deter vandals and squatters.

The state did a study of what it would cost and it would be $110 million to $125 million. The cheapest alternative was the $11 million to clean the building up and seal it. The study concluded there was no “economically feasible” way to save the building.

But in New Jersey, there is always room to make a buck.

The state solicited proposals, which made the group Preserve Greystone happy because it wants the building to stand and be used for a variety of things including a mental health museum, shops, condominiums and government offices, according to an article in the Star-Ledger daily newspaper.

According to an April 15 article in the Star-Ledger, the state put out its 108-page report on the different scenarios for the future of Kirkbride. Here they are:

Historic rehabilitation for 315 apartments, with rents of $1,500 to $2,500 a month.

Historic rehabilitation for 199 larger apartments that could be converted to condominiums, which would each lose an estimated $11.9 million.

Historic rehabilitation for a mixed-use facility including assisted living, office space and a bed-and-breakfast, which would lose an estimated $25.75 million.

Subsequently, the lead consultant on the study the state used for its estimates heard there was “'some interest" by developers in upscale apartments, "based on 'the magnitude of the project' and its historic aspect," according to the Star-Ledger.

Let’s get real here.

This place is in the middle of nowhere. The closest train station is in Morris Plains and there is already a fight for parking spaces. Only one bus line runs to Kirkbride.

That means cars - a lot of cars. Where do you put them? Perhaps you rip up the old farm fields behind Kirkbride and put in a garage or parking deck.

Also, this is a former office building that has had no one in it for close to a decade, located at the edge of a large park Morris County spent a lot of money to create. Right now there are ballfields with large lights being put in. Would you want to spend $2,500 a month for a place with lights coming into your windows and the roar of the crowd during a sporting event every summer night?

If it was me, I’d be complaining. If enough of us complain, the landlord takes notice - and that means the developers start “discussing” things with Morris County to put restrictions on a public park for which we have paid and are already using.

Central Park of Morris County.

Of course there is “some interest” in buying up some of the last remaining open spaces in a congested and overpopulated New Jersey in general, and Morris County in particular, for "luxury" residences. The developers don't care that drawing more people to an area means kids who need to go to school, drivers who will need improved roads and traffic lights to get on and off adjacent streets and appliances and phones that need to sap power off an already overloaded grid.

I'd rather the state either pulls down the building or pays the $11 million to seal it up and leave the remaining residents - ghosts and birds - in peace. But I'm readying my letter to the Land Conservancy just in case. Hey, it worked once in Rockaway Township.