Monday, May 14, 2012

Ramapo College Students Assess Proposed Mall's Environmental Impact


Ramapo River in Mahwah, NJ at site of proposed mall
(photo/Jan Barry)


Have you ever wondered how development projects, with negative impacts that are obvious even to the lay person, were ever approved?  Many of us trust our town planners to make the right decision and mitigate any social, economic or environmental impacts that new developments could have on the surrounding community.  We elect these individuals with the assumption that they are protecting our health and safety.  We also tend to think that if any developments threatened the environment, there must be environmental activists or scientists advising decision makers on how to protect our very valuable environmental resources.  Unfortunately, this is not always the case. 

Community groups and activists are often the ones to protest a proposed mall or roadway project when they believe it could threaten their health or disturb some special habitat or endanger a species.

Such is the case for the proposed Crossroads retail development in the Township of Mahwah, N.J., a semi-rural suburb known for its 5,000 acres of county and state parkland just 30 miles from New York City.  Developers have put in a proposal to the planning board to build a 500,000 square foot retail development on the property of the Sheraton Crossroads hotel.  Residents protested to the board that the property was not the ideal spot for the development given the proximity to the merge of Routes 17 and 287 and its location in a nook of the Ramapo River, but also because of the history of toxic contamination on the property from the former Ford Motor Company’s automobile manufacturing activity. 

After several heated planning board meetings, Mahwah’s Environmental Commission suggested having an Environmental Impact Statement for the site prepared by Ramapo College students in Professor Michael Edelstein’s Environmental Assessment Capstone class.

An Environmental lmpact Statement (EIS) is a planning tool that helps to analyze the ecological, socio-economic,  and physical impacts that an action could have on the community.  Its purpose is to inform decision-makers of the potential short and long term impacts of an action whether it is a mall, a bridge, or a new gas pipeline.  An EIS will typically compare the impacts of four land use scenarios, one typically being a “no action” scenario, because properties in their current state can have costly impacts too.  In that case, a development could be beneficial.  Ramapo students were told to compare the current Crossroads retail proposal with a regional hospital, a 2,000 person residential development, and “no action.”

Usually a costly endeavor, the township decided that utilizing Ramapo College students would not only provide a fresh prospective but also identify areas that would need further investigation by a paid expert.  As in most Environmental Impact Statements, for every potential impact the students were to identify mitigations that could lessen the negative effects of a development on the property.  The mitigation section is the heart of an EIS, in that it provides an avenue to continue with a project but with more intelligent planning tools.

Environmental Impact: Traffic

So what did the students find?  One of the biggest threats they found was what citizen activists were worried about all along-–traffic.  There are six major issues that with any development, and particularly with the proposed retail mall, would worsen already congested conditions.  First, the section of the highway is already a bottle neck with two three lane highways, Route 17 and 287,  merging into one three-lane section with an immediate split to get onto New York State’s major highway,  the NY Thruway.  

All three of these highways are used as major commuter arteries; this section adjacent to the Sheraton Crossroads has extremely congested conditions on the southbound side during morning peak hours, and then during evening peak hours, the northbound side becomes backed up.   The area is even worse during the summer when vacationers headed to upstate New York create even more congestion, not to mention those headed south to the Jersey shore.  Not only will these main highways get more congested if a mall brings in more people, the side roads like Route 202 and Franklin Turnpike will receive more traffic by drivers trying to avoid the highway congestion.  

In addition, the new mall proposal has one entrance and exit to the property that will utilize the existing Mountainside exit that is the only access Stag Hill residents have to their homes.  At one public hearing, a Stag Hill resident said that even now she has issues getting her kids to soccer games and other after school activities during commuter traffic.  She also worries about emergency services having access to those residents.

The students believe any mitigation measure for the traffic problems would only be a bandaid; it would not eliminate the increased traffic.  The first and least expensive is increased mass transit options, and/or a shuttle bus that brings people from the surrounding train stations to the center.  Also, they suggest commuter lanes that would encourage more bus and carpool commuters.  The students also suggest building a fly-over entrance before the Mountainside exit to relieve those residents of more congestion but this would involve purchasing property from Suburban Propane and more construction costs.

Environmental Impact: Air Quality

Another impact that residents didn’t think of but is highly correlated to traffic increases is air quality.  Any increase in traffic volume will create an equal percent increase in carbon dioxide.  Carbon dioxide is a major contributor to ozone levels, and currently the Ramapo Mountain monitoring station indicates that the area is in exceedance of healthy levels.  Other hazardous pollutants accompanied with traffic are particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, VOCs, carbon monoxide, and hydrocarbons.  All of these pollutants increase the risk of asthma, birth defects and cancers.

An increase in visiting cars is one thing but if there is congestion, it is even worse.  In fact, an idling vehicle emits 29 times more pollution than a similar vehicle traveling at 30 miles per hour.  This would include the vehicles trying to find parking.  Even more, delivery trucks will emit carbon monoxide and soot, major contributors to asthma and asthma related deaths. 

Mitigations are similar for traffic issues, but the students suggest installing an air monitoring station to help encourage better practices and identify existing issues.  Also, enforcement of New Jersey’s Idling Law could help to reduce diesel engine pollutants.  More tree lined parking can also reduce the heat island effect that increases smog and ozone.

Environmental Impact: Water Quality

A third major impact that the students identified is tied to the Ramapo River that defines the eastern border of the property.  The Ramapo River is in a floodplain and contains riparian and wetland habitat.  Riparian buffers help to filter out pollutants, reduce erosion, and stabilize the river bank, which helps reduce flood damage.

Given this section of the river experiences severe flooding like that from Hurricane Irene last August, flood mitigation is important.  Wetlands also mitigate flood issues by slowing down the flow and storing excess water and releasing it in times of drought.  They also play a special role in filtering out contaminants, which is important because the Ramapo is the surface water source that feeds the Ramapo Sole Source Aquifer (SSA).  This aquifer system is dependent on the river for groundwater recharge, and is the only source of drinking water for several New Jersey towns including Mahwah, Ramsey, Oakland, Franklin Lakes, Allendale and Pompton Lakes.

The property is also directly within a groundwater recharge zone, and impervious surfaces from buildings and parking lots could prevent proper recharge of the aquifer.  Contamination of this sand and gravel aquifer would be a direct threat to human health because four public wells lie just downstream along the river.

Any development on this property would negatively affect the river because of the increased impervious surfaces that will pollute storm water that will be channeled to the river; pollutants like oils, anti-freeze, gasoline, litter, sand, salt, fertilizers, pesticides, pet droppings and suspended solids like litter and sediments.  Although wetlands filter out pollutants, they can accumulate and over run the wetlands' capacity.  The site’s storm water management plan makes use of dry detention basins which mostly filter out 80-90% of total suspended solids.  It also has a sand filter planned that will filter out some contaminants, and they require regular maintenance. 

The wetlands also support many unique species of plants and animals including a species of special concern, the Great Blue Heron.  Not far down river, there are is a state threatened species, the Wood Turtle, and a state endangered species, the Bobcat.  The parking lot altered water can disrupt the ecosystem from the bottom to the top and further stress these important species. 

The mitigation measures the students proposed to protect the river, aquifer, wetland habitats, and drinking water are as follows: First, pervious asphalt can be used which allows storm water to infiltrate the soil and recharge groundwater.  It can even filter out some contaminants.  Also, they suggest bio-retention basins, swales and rain gardens that use native plants that are good at filtering out certain pollutants, absorbing excess storm water, and allowing for water to percolate back to groundwater.  This use of vegetative basins filters more pollutants than traditional ones, and they provide food and habitat for migrating birds.  They also are plants typical of floodplains and wetlands which provide for continuity of the adjacent landscape, and could help ensure the success of native plant populations within these communities, further helping to combat invasive species that are typical of edge habitats and areas of development.

Another possible complication to the water-related issues is the presence of toxic contamination on the site.  Ford Motor Company operated what was its largest automotive plant for 25 years on this property, leading to several big cleanups after they closed in 1980.  Volatile Organic Compounds have contaminated the soil and groundwater, as well as lead-based paint sludge.  Most of it has been remediated, according to official documents, but groundwater contamination still exists below the site, at levels low enough to be left to natural remediation.

However, the students pointed out that given Ford’s reputation of illegal dumping and incomplete remedial actions, and the infancy of environmental regulation during remedial activities, there could be possible issues from contamination left on the site.  Further site investigation is recommended to help protect residents from release during construction.

The students also found that vapor intrusion from the VOCs in the groundwater is a real threat to nearby buildings.  The area where the contaminants are found is right where a movie theater and parking lot are proposed.  This means careful investigation is needed to determine if vapor intrusion is a threat to indoor air quality.  Mitigation measures include a vapor barrier and venting systems.

Other Environmental Impacts

The Ramapo College environmental students also considered issues of energy usage, visual impacts, and the psycho-social, cultural and historic impacts, especially those of the Ramapo Lenape people.  The Ramapo Mountain pass where the site resides has a long history of Indian inhabitants and is said to be a “meeting place,” which is the loose translation of the word Mahwah.  The students thought that it would be nice to include a community  center to pay tribute to the historical and cultural identity of the Rampoughs and that of the town as well.  They even suggested naming the complex, “The Meeting Place,” which would fit in with the developer’s idea of creating a “down-town feel” or “lifestyle center.” 

In addition, the students found that the big-box stores planned for the rear of the property near the river would negatively impact the view shed of the West Mahwah residents.  Their views would no longer be vegetation; it would include the unattractive loading dock of a big-box store. They would also have to deal with the loud loading and unloading of delivery trucks and their headlights at all hours of the night.  Mitigation measures suggested by the students are to move the big-box stores to the highway side of the property, and have the more beautifully designed and landscaped “lifestyle center” nearest to the residents.  They also suggest planting a vegetative barrier, specifically evergreen trees, so that it maintains effectiveness throughout the year.

More suggestions include solar panels on buildings or in parking lots to reduce heat and produce clean energy.   Additionally, using LED parking lot lamps with special covers to reduce light pollution and in the long run, save on electricity and maintenance costs.  The use of native plants for landscaping was suggested, and not just for the bio-retention basins.  Native plant usage reduces water, fertilizer and maintenance needs, but also eliminates the threat of invasive species infiltrating the valuable wetland and riparian river habitat nearby.  They also stressed the importance of an efficient waste cycling program with the goal being zero-waste, which seemed to intrigue the members of the Environmental Commission and residents at the public hearing presentation.

Public Hearing for Student Report

The public hearing was a success in the eyes of the residents that attended, and the Environmental Commission said that the students raised many questions and concerns that they didn’t think about themselves because the issues are not typically considered even though should be a part of intelligent planning.  The Environmental Commission is not the decision-makers in the process, but they are advisors to the Planning Board who are the decision-makers.  Members are preparing to present the top ten concerns to the planning board at their next meeting. From there, the board will decide whether they need to hire experts to do an official analysis. 

At the students’ final presentation at Mahwah’s Town Hall, to the dismay of the residents, the Mayor confirmed that he didn’t foresee the plans being denied by the planning board unless there was proof that the proposal will pose a direct threat to the health and safety of the community.  Although it may seem obvious that increased congestion and accidents, polluted waterways, air and groundwater, and exposure to toxic substances are all threats to health and safety, proving it within the letter of the law is another thing.  

It is now up to the persistence of community activists to keep pressure on the decision-makers to do what’s best for the community.  It has been their vigilance that most likely led the Mayor and the Environmental Commission to even consider listening to liberal, non-expert college students.  And what came out of it was a beautiful collaboration of the different facets of this community plus a fresh, idealistic look at sustainable planning and development.  In the end, the residents are happy and feel they have made an impact, and the decision-makers can now make informed decisions.  

Barbara Bodden is a senior at Ramapo College majoring in Environmental Studies.

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