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Lawsuit is Next Hurdle For Woodcliff Lake Dam Project

United Water sued Hillsdale to void a pair of land use laws the borough passed last year.

A lawsuit filed by United Water against Hillsdale stands as the next step in the legal battle over a proposed project to upgrade the Woodcliff Lake Reservoir dam.

The Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is requiring United Water to approximately double the rate at which water can flow out of the reservoir. The DEP approved a plan submitted by United Water in 2011.

Hillsdale has asserted that its Planning Board should review United Water's plans because of concerns that the project could worsen flooding along the Pascack Brook downstream from the reservoir.

The borough passed two ordinances last year which create additional borough oversight for tree removal and utility projects in order to "protect the public health, safety welfare and property" of the borough and residents.

"That's my only goal: to protect the residents of Hillsdale," Mayor Max Arnowitz said.

United Water sued the borough last June to have the ordinances declared "invalid and unenforcable." The case is still pending.

The state Board of Public Utilities (BPU) decided last week that they would dismiss without prejudice a petition from United Water which had requested a ruling that local ordinances in Hillsdale and Woodcliff Lake do not have authority over the plan.

The BPU declined to rule that they have jurisdiction over the issue. They also "accepted" the DEP's claim that the Dam Safety Act and Water Supply Management Act preempt local laws, but declined to decide that the DEP has sole authority over the issue.

"The Board is not the appropriate forum to review NJDEP’S authority and decisions made pursuant to that authority," BPU commissioners wrote in their decision.

United Water has argued that the DEP should have exclusive authority over dam projects in New Jersey. 

"It's not the job of any local community," United Water Senior Vice President of Communications Rich Henning said.

Donald MacLachlan, an attorney representing the Hillsdale & Westwood Flood Solution Group, said he believed there should be a review of the downstream effects the project could have because the DEP only examined the dam structure when giving it their approval.

"Our goal is to make sure the environmental impact of the United Water project is objectively evaluated because nobody — not the residents, not Hillsdale's government and not the DEP — wishes to permit the construction of a $25 million project which could contribute to flooding," MacLachlan said.

One of the ordinances targeted in United Water's lawsuit requires utility companies to bring their plans before the borough's Municipal Land Use Board.

The ordinance also prevents any utility from "negatively impacting" roads or the ability of emergency services to reach any resident or business. United Water's proposed plan would send water across Church Road, the street which crosses the dam, potentially closing it during storms of rarely extreme severity.

In the complaint, United Water's attorney alleged that Hillsdale made "repeated attempts to thwart" the dam project.

"Hillsdale has actively fought against completion of the Dam Improvement Project," United Water alleged in the complaint.

Arnowitz and MacLachlan both said they did not want to stop the project, which the BPU ackowledged in their decision.

"The arguments raised do no question the necessity of the project, but focus on the safety and reliability of the renovations required by the permit," BPU commissioners wrote.

Have a question or news tip? Contact editor Jim Leggate at Jim.Leggate@patch.com, or find us on Facebook and Twitter. For news straight to your inbox, sign up for our daily newsletter.

Pete February 28, 2013 at 09:31 PM
As for what the infrastructure can handle, it isn't clear that the developed Pascack Valley can handle even the volume pre-dredging. This is in many ways a needs-of-few vs. needs-of-many issue, which are very seldom simple. The aim of my reference to the essentially Woodcliff Lake of 1980 is to ask how much water is enough for the region, and who gets to decide? Should the regional water supply be required to accomodate gross mistakes and negligence in building practices and the people stuck paying the price for those? I'm not saying yes, I'm not saying no. But there is more to this debate than simply "the reservoir must be made smaller."
Township February 28, 2013 at 10:16 PM
Yes Pete, the shrubs were growing in the lake bed AND turning brown at our houses if you can remember it back then. I was actually making your original point more valid. Also to be noted: all those shrubs growing in the lake bed went away and those of us who made the effort lost virtually no shrubs at our homes either. Perhaps if people were to read what was written with an open mind rather than masses refusing to burge on both sides that a compromise could be worked out. United Water has so far refused to make themselves available in an open an honest forum with all the parties involved. To date there is no proof either way as to whether this DEP regulation will actually save more people or if the Resevoir is already over capacity and needs to hold less water. If that is the case United Water needs to explore other avenues. They are for all intensive purposes a monopoly who receives considerable government funding/concessions. As such they need to work with the local communities rather than fight them. The case has yet to be made by any of the parties involved. Until then everyone can agree to disagree.
Gary Conkling March 01, 2013 at 02:38 AM
What is the capacity of wood cliff lake? 92feet? 80 feet? Read up on earthen dams. The Dep is making United Water make the dam safer. Hopefully we don't see a storm which can compromise the dam.
Township March 01, 2013 at 01:42 PM
To say simply 'Read up on earthen dams' is a poor blanket statement. Every earthen dam is different as is the individual communities they are located in. As such each and every earthen dam needs to be studied in great depth in relation to local conditions. This isn't simply flood waters: the Woodcliff Lake Resevoir now floods so quickly and with such force there is virtually no warning. A house on Harding Ave in Westwood, a well built and well maintained house at that, had to be knocked just this week as a former flood knocked it off its foundation. This house was not located on a stream but well away from it and was built well before local elected and appointed officials ignored the over expansion of the Resevoir in the 80's and its since operating at a clearly unsafe leaves for decades. The dam is already well past being a critical safety risk for local people. That leaves the question what will truly make people more safe: United Waters proposal or lowering the water levels in the dam to a level United Waters delivery system can safely handle? That has yet to be answered and until all parties meet in a truly open and honest fashion lets hope people keep an open mind to both sides.

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