Study to seek flood remedies in Morristown’s Second Ward; pastor still hopes affordable housing can be built

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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.

The Whippany River rushes over Martin Luther King Avenue in Morristown after Tropical Storm Irene. Photo by Berit Ollestad.
The Whippany River rushes over Martin Luther King Avenue in Morristown after Tropical Storm Irene. Photo by Berit Ollestad.

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.

Firefighters prepare to rescue residents in Morristown's Second Ward after Tropical Storm Irene. Photo by Berit Ollestad.
Firefighters prepare to rescue residents in Morristown's Second Ward after Tropical Storm Irene. Photo by Shea Jonah.

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.”

READ MORE ABOUT TROPICAL STORM IRENE

These trucks, parked in a Center Street parking lot near the Bethel A.M.E. Church, were overwhelmed by Tropical Storm Irene and the Whippany River. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
These trucks, parked in a Center Street parking lot near the Bethel A.M.E. Church, were overwhelmed by Tropical Storm Irene and the Whippany River. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

 

 

 

 

 

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4 COMMENTS

  1. Ed,

    I would love to have coffee with you some time. I pray that the estimated cost of $13mm is still correct. At this point it may be higher. My cheif concern is for the families and property owners that live in this area of Morristown. I am certain everyone would prefer to live on higher ground, but given the cost of housing in Morristown I am not sure this is a real option. When we are able to remedy the flood problem, with minimal impact down stream I believe this are will be a great place for affordable housing development.

    Give me a call at the church so we schedule a time to speak in person.

    Peace,

    Pastor Sidney

  2. Ed,

    I would love to have coffer with you some time. I pray that the estimated cost of $13mm is still correct. At this point it may be higher. My cheif concern is for the families and property owners that live in this area of Morristown. I am certain everyone would prefer to live on higher ground, but given the cost of housing in Morristown I am not sure this is a real option. When we are able to remedy the flood problem, with minimal impact down stream I believe this are will be a great place for affordable housing development.

    Give me a call at the church so we schedule a time to speak in person.

    Peace,

    Pastor Sidney

  3. The Army corps of engineers has determined that the flood remediation would cost 13 million dollars at Coal and Center and it would only send the problem down stream. There will never be a housing complex on Coal and Center and why would you want to put people at risk. Unless it is only Minorities that do don’t care about. Even a building on stilts would have to have a means of egress during a storm. I guess the fire department can do it again as they did during Irene.

  4. Ok Market Street Mission…time to wake up and take a similar initiative. Obtain flood insurance and plan accordingly for the future so the Mission won’t have to ask people for unnecessary donations to pay for the Mission’s lack of business acumen.

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