Efforts to resolve a century-old flooding issue on Glenwood Avenue have led to a dispute between the borough and a resident who says its solution violates the terms of its easement on his property.
By Matt Skoufalos | January 16, 2024
Since late 2022, Merchantville resident Elliot Irizarry has been at odds with the borough government over the placement of a municipal works project on his property.
The project, a packaged pump station, is intended to help resolve 100-year-old flooding issues in his neighborhood.
But Irizarry, a disabled U.S. Marine Corps combat veteran, says the work that was done is giving him nightmarish post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) flashbacks to his service days because it resembles a machine gun nest.
He would like the pump station relocated, removed, or its access hatch made flush with the ground so that he can mitigate its impact on his home life.
At issue is the interpretation of a utility easement that the previous owners of Irizarry’s property signed in 1995 to get an earlier version of the stormwater project underway.
Irizarry said that deal obligates the borough government to restore his property to its original condition, and limits the scope of the work to beneath the ground.
Merchantville has argued that the easement grants broader access to the property in question, and that it needs to acquire the land in order to meet a public need. It has begun eminent domain proceedings to acquire a portion of Irizarry’s land upon which the pump station was installed.
Both sides have been in conflict with one another since late 2022 over the result of the work and access to the pump station.
There have been arguments between Irizarry and borough contractors, as well as an alleged physical altercation with borough engineer Thomas Leisse of Pennoni Associates, whom Irizarry said tried to get him to sign a revised easement prior to the construction getting underway.
Irizarry also claims that a Merchantville Police officer shoved him during one encounter on his property, and said he is awaiting receipt of bodycam footage from the alleged incident.
Last Monday, attorneys for each party argued the case before Camden County Superior Court Judge Deborah Silverman Katz. Essentially, she ordered them both to get a second opinion on the matter, and not to interfere in one another’s affairs.
Irizarry must next obtain an independent engineering report that “discusses manner(s) of modification such that the stormwater pumping station can become flush with the ground” by January 22, according to Silverman Katz’s order.
Once that report has been made, engineers for the borough of Merchantville to “discuss the contents of the Report and whether the modifications suggested are possible” within 30 days of receipt, the judge wrote.
Irizarry and his family “shall not impede the Borough’s access to the Property through direct or indirect means and shall remain as far away as is reasonable from Borough personnel while the Borough is accessing the Property.”
Likewise, Merchantville must provide Irizarry with 48 hours notice prior to arriving onsite to work on the pumping station, except under emergency circumstances, Silverman Katz wrote, in which case a phone call ahead of time will be deemed sufficient notice.
For Irizarry, the ruling was a positive outcome to a problem that he said has robbed him of his peace of mind.
“I want the pump to work,” he said. “I just want that box flush to the ground. All I’ve ever argued with them was, ‘make sure it’s beneath the surface, make sure it’s restored to its original condition.'”
Irizarry was similarly relieved to have the opportunity of advance notice from borough contractors and staffers prior to servicing the pump, which he said will help calm his nerves around the issue.
“If I see people walking up, and I see the cameras going off, and I hear voices, it’s like a stutter-step in my brain,” he said.”
Merchantville Mayor Ted Brennan said that he anticipates the dispute coming to an amicable conclusion.
“We think we were able to move this forward through the spirit of compromise by considering and agreeing to a new, exploratory proposal presented by Mr. Irizarry and his attorneys,” Brennan told NJ Pen. “We see the potential to meet our goals if what they explore is feasible.
“We have a tight timeline on this so that we ultimately come to a resolution on this issue, one way or another, in a short period of time, and the parties can put this behind them,” Brennan continued.
“We look forward to the results of Mr. Irizarry’s efforts, and will continue to move forward in an effort to improve the community,” the mayor said.
Both parties will reconvene before Silverman Katz on February 26.
This is a continuing story. Stick with NJ Pen for updates.
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