Efforts to solve a 100-year flooding problem have resulted in a legal battle between the borough government and a Merchantville resident who says a utility project has turned his front yard into a PTSD-triggering mud pit.
By Matt Skoufalos | January 7, 2024
For more than a century, residents on Glenwood Avenue in Merchantville have held their collective breath with every significant rainfall.
The block has a history of extreme flooding, so much so that it can become impassable to vehicle traffic, with heavy rainfall waterlogging basements and stranding cars.
For decades, several attempts have been made to resolve the issue, which are catalogued in depth on the Merchantville Online community website, but none has significantly mitigated the impact of the excessive stormwater outflow there.
The most recent solution, which dates back 15 or so years, leveraged $350,000 in federal funds to construct an underground packaged pump station in the middle of the 200 block of Glenwood Avenue.
The site for the job was identified in 1995, when the borough government signed a 15-foot easement agreement with homeowners Keith and Donna Doran. That agreement allowed Merchantville to build an underground stormwater management system in the Dorans’ front yard, and obligated the borough government to restore their land to its original condition after doing so.
However, when the Dorans sold their property to Elliot Irizarry in 2017, flooding on the block still remained a significant and persistent issue. By mid-2019, Irizarry was among several residents in the neighborhood clamoring for a permanent solution to the problem.
Three years later, on the morning of February 2, 2022, Irizarry said he received a text from borough engineer Thomas Leisse of Pennoni Associates saying “that he was coming to my home to ask me to sign some ‘legalese’ paperwork.
“He came accompanied by Denise Brouse, whom I knew was the borough secretary and notary,” Irizarry said. “I found it strange that he came with a notary to stamp my signature without me having time to review what I was signing.
“I didn’t sign anything,” he said. “When I read it, I was angry. It was a new easement.
“These guys were trying to get me to sign over 25 feet of my land for nothing,” Irizarry said. “They wanted indemnification, which meant that if somebody fell on the stuff they were putting on my land, I would be responsible. And there was no compensation.”
For the next five months, Irizarry exchanged communication with the Merchantville government about the project.
Eventually, with assurances that the work would be beneficial for the neighborhood, and that the impact to his property would be minimal, he relaxed his objections to the project.
“I know we all suffer from this flooding situation,” Irizarry said.
“I said, ‘As long as you guys do what you’re supposed to do — all the work is beneath the surface, and it will be restored to its original condition — everything is cool.’”
‘It looks like a machine gun bunker’
However, what began as a three-week project in July 2022 eventually stretched into the fall. Moreover, despite promises that the work would be kept at ground level, the construction created a 12-feet-by-12-feet metal hatch, elevated about two feet off the ground in a concrete footing.
Grass seed that was planted at the edge of the station eroded rapidly after the construction was concluded, Irizarry said, leaving the exposed hatch sitting in the middle of his once-green yard, now a muddy slick.
Irizarry doesn’t understand the purpose of the concrete footing around the hatch, which he believes could have been installed flush with the ground line. It’s possible the cement would have served as a base in which to anchor electrical service panels associated with the project, which were subsequently moved to the curbline after his objections.
But for Irizarry, a permanently disabled U.S. Marine Corps combat veteran who struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of his military service, the construction has become a permanent reminder of his time at war.
“It looks like a machine gun bunker,” Irizarry said. “This triggers my anxiety. I’ve shot at machine gun bunkers; I’ve gotten shot at. I spent eight months in combat.
“It’s terrible; it’s ugly,” he said. “People come by and say, ‘Oh, you’re a doomsday prepper? I used to have picnics, barbecues; play volleyball. You can’t run around there now. It’s a safety hazard. They made it into a quagmire, and it’s all unusable.”
Irizarry retained attorneys to try to compel the borough to remediate the issue. Despite assurances from the local government that the property would be restored to its original condition, he said his relationship with the borough and its representatives has only deteriorated further since the work was completed.
Irizarry alleges that he and Leisse had a physical altercation over access to the pump station, which is due to be addressed in court; he is also reviewing his options in a second, alleged encounter with a Merchantville police officer.
All the while, he wrestles with the stress of controlling his emotions around the entire experience, which he said has robbed him of peace in his own home. Ironically, Irizarry moved to Merchantville from the Bronx at the advice of his therapist because of his belief that the suburban setting would be less triggering to his PTSD.
“I lost faith in all of them,” he said. “If they had just done what they were supposed to do, this would never be an issue. I just wanted to be left alone to deal with my sicknesses that I have.”
Grey Johnson, Irizarry’s next-door neighbor, who moved in during the summer of 2021, said that nothing about the project has been delivered as promised, from the duration of the work to its failure to achieve its stated goals.
“I don’t think this plan was well thought-out,” Johnson said. “As someone who just moved in, I don’t have a lot of trust.”
Likewise, Johnson said he’s seen interactions deteriorate between his neighbor and municipal employees, as the dispute has stretched on for more than a year.
“I feel like they’ve been baiting [Elliot] into trying to make a mistake,” he said. “It’s gotten to a point where it’s not professional.”
‘We’re not doing anything outside of what we believe our legal rights to be’
For Merchantville Mayor Ted Brennan — whose father, Patrick, signed the original easement agreement with the Dorans as borough mayor — the project has become an enormous source of frustration.
Even before the work could begin, it took elected officials at several levels of government decades to engineer a solution to the flooding on the block, significant effort to identify funds to pay for it, plus extensions to preserve those earmarks with the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Brennan said.
Nonetheless, he said, Merchantville explored different ways to situate the pump station within the confines of the easement it held on Irizarry’s land at his request.
“The borough staff were advised to continue to try to work with Mr. Irizarry to find a solution,” Brennan said. “We did come to him with a number of options.”
Not only would moving the mechanism to the rear of the yard be expensive, but it could create bigger problems accessing and maintaining the pump station, Brennan said. Similarly, he said, Irizarry rejected offers to buffer the hatch with greenery, and demanded notification whenever municipal workers were coming to access it.
“Every time we went out there, there was a confrontation,” Brennan said. “Now we have a half-million-dollar investment sitting in the ground that was supposed to enhance quality of life for the residents, and we can’t maintain it.”
Brennan, who is a land use attorney by trade, believes that the borough government has the right to take the property on which the pump station is situated because it’s a utility easement.
As an initial step in eminent domain proceedings, Merchantville offered Irizarry $8,000 to purchase a portion of his property in November 2023, which he declined. A month later, the borough obtained a court order to access the pump site for maintenance because, after two major rainstorms, it wasn’t functioning properly.
“While I certainly respect anybody’s property rights, I don’t think that the borough has done anything in this instance to unlawfully impede on his property rights,” the mayor said.
“We’ve worked with [Irizarry] from the outset. We’re not doing anything outside of what we believe our legal rights to be.”
Regardless of the way events have played out, Brennan said he’s as saddened by the thought that the pump station is triggering to Irizarry’s PTSD as he is frustrated that the project remains a source of conflict in the community.
“I am not a veteran or a combat veteran, and I can’t truly understand what he’s going through,” the mayor said. “But I understand and can truly appreciate what he’s saying to me. I take those issues very seriously; I just don’t think there is another option that’s feasible.”
On January 8, the eminent domain case will be heard in Camden County Superior Court.
If Merchantville prevails, the borough plans to erect fencing around the site and plant arbor vitae along the edges of the project line “so as to allow it to better blend into the community, ensure its security, and to still provide us access as needed,” Brennan said.
“The only plans post-acquisition of the property are to install a fence and buffering to allow it to more naturally sit within the community, and look a little more a part of the community, and not a pump station sitting in somebody’s yard,” he said.
But for Irizarry, it’s difficult to look out his window and not be constantly reminded of how poorly the project has gone. He said he’s dealing with the stress by frequent consultations with his therapist and adjustments to his medication.
“I am depressed,” he said. “My wife is worried.
“All they have to do is get rid of the lid,” Irizarry said. “Make it flat; make it like you said it was going to be from the very beginning.
“My goal is for accountability for them in front of a judge,” he said.
This is a continuing story. Stick with NJ Pen for updates.
Please support NJ Pen with a subscription. Get e-mails, or follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.