The future of Buck Woods remains in limbo, despite Highland Park Borough Council action of a few weeks ago that seemed to indicate otherwise. Council members on Feb. 17 introduced a bond ordinance to fund the purchase of the property. The second reading and anticipated final approval of the ordinance was scheduled for the Tuesday March 4th meeting, but at some point between those two meetings, plans changed.
“Buck Woods is on hold,” Mayor Gayle Brill Mittler said Tuesday evening. She and others declined to elaborate.
Buck Woods is a 4.1-acre property owned by JSM @ Highland Park LLC, and in its undeveloped state worth an assessed $279,000. It lies between South Fifth and South Seventh avenues, at the southern end of South Sixth Avenue, about a half-block from Bartle Elementary School. Developer Jack Morris of JSM could not be reached for comment.
The Buck Woods property includes a stream that runs through the area and sewer infrastructure that runs north to south through the center of the site. An obvious feature of the site is the steep slopes of 25 percent drops or greater. Under current land-use law, a developer could build single-family homes on the property, as long as the property could be developed for a spread of single-family homes, as long as each property is a minimum 5,000 square feet, about a quarter-acre. This would match the development nearby on South Fifth and South Seventh avenues.
According to published accounts, JSM in 1999 proposed building 26 four-bedroom houses on the property. The proposal led to a grassroots backlash and ultimately JSM withdrew its initial application, in favor of a smaller project for only 22 houses.
The Planning Board ultimately denied this second application. The developer appealed the Planning Board decision, and the appeal ended when the judge reduced the plan to 22 houses and returned it to the Planning Board. The Planning Board denied that application 6-3, in October 2000, on the basis of environmental compliance issues.
Since that time, the property has seen no substantial activity. About 40 trees were removed in June 2005, but despite concerns that this was done in violation of the borough’s tree ordinance, Mr. Morris was acquitted of any wrongdoing.
More recently, ribbons appeared on trees on the perimeter of the property, triggering concerns among residents watching the property that development or at least more tree removal could be in the works, but nothing has happened.
“The Environmental Commission has always been interested in this property,” Allan Williams of the commission said Thursday. “We’ve asked questions, and we’ve always got the same response: ‘We can’t discuss that.’”
Buck Woods is extensively contaminated from dumping that used to take place on-site during the time of a previous owner. In a series of letters dated from 2006 to 2009, environmental firms hired by JSM documented discovering pollutants, including concrete and asphalt debris, as well as railroad ties and construction debris, as present “throughout a majority of the site,” according to a draft report by engineering firm Clarke Caton Hintz.
Before the site could be developed, more than 60,000 cubic yards – about 90,000 tons — of soil would need to be removed, disposed of off-site, and replaced.
“There is no reasonable prospect for such an expensive site remediation to be undertaken by a privately-financed developer without the assistance available through a redevelopment designation,” the Clarke Caton Hinz report states.
That report concludes that the borough could declare Buck Woods in need of redevelopment on the basis of the steep slopes of the property, and because of the soil contamination. Such a designation would allow the borough to control the fate of the property – which could include designating the property for open space preservation – but the borough would have to pay for the cost of acquisition.
“I really can’t talk about it,” Mayor Brill Mittler said of those plans, a familiar litany where Buck Woods is concerned. “I am very much interested in the open space.”
In the long run, residents and environmentalists interested in keeping the property preserved as open space, are going to have to do what they’ve been doing for a long time already.
They’re going to have to wait, and see what happens next.