Hydrologists have begun a study of the Whippany River, searching for ways to keep Morristown’s Bethel A.M.E. Church from flooding if there is a repeat of Tropical Storm Irene.
Bethel Pastor Sidney Williams Jr. hopes for more, however. He wants to resurrect plans for a 73-unit affordable housing complex on stilts at the corner of Coal Avenue and Center Street, abutting NJ Transit tracks on the site of a former junkyard and coal plant, near a stretch of river that flooded during Tropical Storm Irene.
“If the church is going to stay here, we’re going to have to address the issue” of flooding, said the pastor, whose church was heavily damaged by Irene. “The area has to be livable. And if it’s livable, why not build affordable housing?”
Proposed housing site, photographed last May. Please click icon below for captions.
The Whippany River Watershed Action Committee this month received a $17,744 grant for the study from the Watershed Institute, an arm of the Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association funded by the state Department of Environmental Protection and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.
“They will create a plan to restore the eroded stream segment that runs through the church property,” said Alyse Greenberg, program coordinator for the Watershed Institute.
Princeton Hydro has been hired for the task. The study has started and probably will continue until next fall, said Art Vespignani, facilitator for the Whippany River Watershed Action Committee.
“We’re hoping to find out what’s causing the problem at that spot by the church,” Art said. “We’re planning to produce a plan that allows us to seek money to correct the problem.”
Pastor Sidney estimates Irene caused $150,000 worth of damage to the church, which lacked flood insurance because of an oversight.
Nobody who experienced Irene in Morristown’s Second Ward will forget it.
The Whippany River surged over its banks, inundated the Cauldwell playground, roared across Martin Luther King Avenue and Center Street and filled the basement of the Bethel A.M.E. Church with four feet of water. Apartment dwellers were rescued by rowboats. Tractor trailers sat half-submerged in a parking lot that became a brown lake.
“This is not an affluent congregation,” Art Vespignani said of Bethel A.M.E. The Whippany River committee “would like to do what we can to get the plans back on track” for affordable housing in the church neighborhood, if feasible. “To do that, we have to look at the entire flood plain there.”
While he welcomes the study, Mayor Tim Dougherty said he will await its findings before considering any development in the flood area.
“I applaud the pastor’s passion” in pursuing the grant, the Mayor said. “We both are on the same page and share the same passion for affordable housing.”
Even if the report concludes that the flooding can be tamed, officials may be hard-pressed to persuade residents who lived through Irene, said Phil Abramson of Jonathan Rose Companies, the town planner.
“It’s an engineering issue–and it’s also a question of public perception,” Phil said. “You need to be convinced beyond all reasonable doubt that people will be safe when you build.”
Residents heard a presentation at the church last spring about an affordable four-story apartment building that would be elevated above a parking level, sparing any flood damage to dwellings. In theory, anyway.
“If a hundred-year flood ever happened again, our engineers are saying it would only flood a foot or two,” said Larry Regan of Regan Development, which proposed funding the project via tax credits and a town housing trust that is supported by developer fees.
Based in Ardlsey, NY, Regan Development has constructed about 20 affordable projects in the tri-state area since the mid-1980s, Larry said. Whether Morristown joins the list depends largely on what the hydrologists recommend, he said.
“We’ve invested time and money and energy in this,” Larry said. “But we don’t want to build if it won’t produce a good quality of life for the residents. It’s up in the air right now.”
Volunteers mop up church after Irene.
After Irene, community members came together to clean up the church, shaving about $65,000 from the repair estimate, Pastor Sidney said. The congregation will rely on loans and grants for the rest of the work, he said.
Who is responsible for monitoring river conditions and clearing river-clogging debris are key questions for Princeton Hydro and the church. The pastor is bracing for opposition to the housing, regardless of the study’s outcome.
“People have written off the development project because of the flood,” Pastor Sidney said. “But there is still a great need for affordable housing.”