Tinton Falls Residents Concerned About Proposed Redevelopment Near Swimming River Wetlands

Maya, a 6-year old resident of Tinton Falls, read a letter she wrote to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection asking them to protect the Swimming River wetlands near her backyard. Sunayana Prabhu
Maya, a 6-year old resident of Tinton Falls, read a letter she wrote to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection asking them to protect the Swimming River wetlands near her backyard. Sunayana Prabhu

By Sunayana Prabhu

TINTON FALLS – Residents of Tinton Falls who live along the Swimming River are concerned about a potential development that isn’t taking place in their borough.

At least four families from Tinton Falls whose homes are separated from the River Centre office complex in the Lincroft section of Middletown by the Swimming River were at a borough meeting May 2 to voice concerns over proposed redevelopment.

But according to Middletown Township attorney Brian Nelson, their concerns are unfounded.

While the property in question at 331 Newman Springs Road is part of Middletown Township, Tinton Falls residents feel neighbors in adjacent municipalities should also be worried.

A plan “of this magnitude” will flood neighboring towns edging the Navesink River, including Red Bank, Fair Haven, Rumson, Monmouth Beach, Sea Bright and Sandy Hook “within one to four hours,” argued Frank Valentino, a resident of Riveredge Road. Swimming River is the largest tributary of the Navesink River. The “ecological and biological destructive impact of this massive, proposed project will be devastating,” he said.

Nelson said the property has been “substantially vacant” since the buildings lost tenants during the COVID-19 pandemic, including JCP&L and Colliers Engineering & Design which moved into Bell Works in Holmdel. The property is currently zoned BP (Business Park) by Middletown Township and a zonal change would be required to make it residential, he said, noting the redevelopment would not affect the river. “They’re not touching the Swimming River,” he said. “They’re not touching any wetlands. Everything that they’re looking to build on is already developed property.”

Last month residents whose homes abut Swimming River received a letter of inquiry from a Rockaway-based environmental consulting firm EcolSciences Inc., hired by AvalonBay Communities, Inc., a publicly traded real estate company.

According to the residents, the company plans to build around 400 residential homes on the 35-acre property which is located near Exit 109 of the Garden State Parkway. The owner of the property is listed as FM Red Owner, LLC of Delaware.

Lora Smith-Staines, a Tinton Falls resident and environmental scientist, said AvalonBay has applied to the NJDEP (New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection) for a waiver which would allow them to alter the wetlands transition zone of the Swimming River to go ahead with the project and build the residential units. She said she is concerned “they could build out into the wetlands.”

Smith-Staines said the property includes “a preserved, environmentally sensitive wetlands area which is a habitat for numerous birds, fish, reptiles and mammals, and endangered birds such as the bald eagle.” She also noted “Middletown has amended its master plan’s housing plan to incorporate the property.”

On March 22, Middletown Township adopted a resolution with changes to its master plan. Page 16 of the report lists “housing projections” from 2009 through 2028 that include an anticipated “Exit 109 Redevelopment Plan” with “389 multifamily housing units.”

But according to Nelson, everything is in the preliminary stages. “There’s been no approvals of any sort. The redeveloper hasn’t even been designated yet,” Nelson said during a phone call with The Two River Times.

He noted that the township is looking to fulfill some of its affordable housing obligations by designating the River Centre office park as a potential residential development. He said the “rationale” behind the change is that the site already has the necessary framework for development, with access to roadways and public transportation. Building homes on this property could thwart developments in other, wooded, undeveloped areas of town which could be “devastating environmentally,” Nelson said.

If the River Centre project “doesn’t happen at Exit 109, there’s a developer that’s filed a builder’s remedy lawsuit that wants to rip down 20 acres of trees and build 500 apartments” on a wooded parcel located on the border of Middletown and Holmdel by Exit 114 behind Memorial Sloan Kettering, Nelson said.

“The township, frankly, doesn’t have much choice in the matter because of the affordable housing laws,” he explained.

“We should be moving away from wetlands, not into them,” Smith-Staines said at the Tinton Falls Borough Council meeting, echoing residents who voiced their concerns about any alteration to the Swimming River, noting the many reasons to protect the wetlands, woodlands and estuaries.

Kirsten Ekelund, one of the residents of Riveredge Road who received the notification from AvalonBay, said she was “upset” and “confused” because “a lot of this stuff has been a year in the process. And we’re just now finding out about it.”

“These animals deserve and appreciate their home just as much as we do, which is why we’re fighting and bringing this to your attention,” Ekelund said.

The impact of the proposed residential development on the river ecosystem would also affect “the Swimming River Reservoir which is a source of drinking water to our community,” Smith-Staines said, further adding that open spaces are vital for a healthy community.

In addition to the environmental impact, Smith-Staines also spoke about the historical value of the area and suggested it be considered for a museum or park. “Dating back to 1675, Lewis Morris brought slaves from Caribbean properties who built an iron forge on the river in Tinton Falls. Further, the Lenape tribe of Native Americans have a long rich history in Monmouth County,” she said.

There has been “tremendous growth” in the area, said Ellen Goldberg of Glenwood Drive, who complained that “the building is out of control.”

In a phone conversation after the meeting, Smith-Staines said a large part of the parcel backs up to the river and nearly 400 units is “quite a lot.”

“I’m concerned about the stormwater runoff from all of these units,” she said.

Smith-Staines said she is also concerned about the height of the building for migratory birds.

“We want to support these people,” said John A. Manginelli, Tinton Falls Council president, after Tuesday’s meeting. Manginelli is also liaison to the borough’s historic commission and zoning board of adjustment. Aside from writing a letter to the NJ- DEP, the borough doesn’t have much control over another town’s developments.

While AvalonBay’s waiver application is being reviewed by the NJDEP, residents have been urging neighbors to sign their petition on change.org titled Stop Development Along the Swimming River. Created April 24, the petition had 640 signatures as of press time May 10.

Nelson argued that the petition is misleading. “They make it sound like they’re building something on the Swimming River, which just isn’t true,” he said, adding that the developer won’t touch “a blade of grass.”

Middletown Township is looking to redevelop both sides of Newman Springs Road. Life Time, a three-story luxury fitness and wellness complex, is under construction now along the north side of the roadway; Red Bank Veterinary Hospital will be moving from Tinton Falls to the area as well.

Smith-Staines said she is holding out hope while awaiting proposed plans from the developer. “If they’re not actually going to do anything in the wetlands or the wooded area, that’s wonderful news, makes my life easier not having to fight a battle,” she said, noting she harbors concerns until she sees something in writing.

“I don’t fully buy it,” she said. “I find it hard to believe that there are only two locations in the entire Middletown Township that are available for affordable housing.”

The article originally appeared in the May 11 – 17, 2023 print edition of The Two River Times.


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