The North Jersey District Water Supply Commission is reportedly planning to cut down a swath of trees alongside a water line running through Montclair and other towns. And that project could mean trouble for Montclair’s Alonso F. Bonsal Preserve and other parklands, according to the Friends of the Bonsal Preserve.

Jonathan Grupper is the chair of the Friends of the Bonsal Preserve. “The water issue took us by surprise,” he said on Tuesday. He said that the group had learned about the water line tree-cutting while keeping an eye on another NJDWSC project, this one involving the rerouting of a Clifton sewer line through the northern edge of the 21-acre preserve.

First Ward Councilor Bill Hurlock said on Tuesday that the council had been made aware of the water line issue very recently.

A posting on the Friends of the Bonsal Preserve’s Facebook page alleged that the tree clearing was being done to fulfill a mandate by the Department of Homeland Security. Hurlock said that was not the case. “Not sure where that originated from,” he said. He said that Acting Township Manager Timothy Stafford and Deputy Township Manager Brian Scantlebury had reached out to NJDWSC to try to see if there was any way to scale the project back.

Gray Russell, the township’s sustainability officer, said he was aware of the issue, but that he himself wasn’t sure if any township offices had officially made any statement.

Russell said that the intention was to cut trees over the water line, but also a 15-foot wide section of trees on either side of the line.
“I think any of us are concerned,” Russell said. He noted that the Bonsal Preserve is among the last remaining pieces of land in Montclair set aside specifically as a wildlife and nature preserve.

Lyle Landon, the chair of the Montclair Environmental Commission, said that the commission was keeping an eye on the matter, and planned to discuss it formally at its Dec. 13 meeting.

Attempts to reach the NJDWSC for comment on Monday and Tuesday were unsuccessful.

Grupper said that the group had been informed that the decision to cut the trees was based on an engineering study, an explanation that the group was wary of. “There’s no engineering requirement for this,” Grupper said.

He said the group’s contact at NJDWSC on the sewer project told them that there was going to be another project involving tree removal along the water line.

The water line project doesn’t involve only Montclair, Grupper said, but other municipalities in the region, like Nutley, Clifton and Little Falls. He said that none of those municipalities had been notified about the water line project. The route of the water line includes the riparian zone in the preserve, an especially sensitive area. “If they disrupt the trees it’s going to have a big impact on the preserve,” he said. “You can imagine what North Jersey would look like if everywhere there was a water line, there couldn’t be a tree within 15 feet of it,” he said, He adding that parks, golf courses and other public lands would be at risk as a result.

Additionally, the Bonsal Preserve is certified as a Green Acres preserve by the state, and is subject to protections and guidelines by the Department of Environmental Protection.

“Montclair has been somewhat passive,” Grupper said. The Friends of the Bonsal Preserve want the township council and public works department to reach out to the NJDWSC and ask for a copy of the report. “We know that they’re experts,” he said. He said that it was important to make sure that the public was able to weigh in on the project.

“It’s a bit of a race to head it off, just to make sure that there’s a public discourse,” Grupper said.

Sandy Sorkin, also a member of the Friends of the Bonsal Preserve, attended a recent council meeting to inquire about the sewer issue. With the sewer, Clifton intends to reroute a section of the sewer line that currently runs alongside the creek to the northern edge of the preserve.

Sorkin said on Monday that Stafford, Hurlock and Water Bureau Director Gary Obszarny had been responsive to his questions about the sewer and the water line. “I trust everything [Obszarny] says implicitly,” he said. “But we’re not getting any information,” he said, which he took to mean that there was no new information to report.