Tenafly Council Considers Reducing Housing Density to Address Climate Change

The Tenafly Borough Council convened recently to consider far-reaching amendments to its zoning and environmental regulations to combat climate change and flooding. The main focus was whether reducing housing density and increasing side yard setback for new homes is a viable strategy to combat environmental challenges intensified by global warming.

David Novak, from Burgess Associates, presented data: New Jersey’s temperature has surged by 3.5 degrees since 1895, with forecasts suggesting more heatwaves, heavy rainfalls, and droughts on the horizon. He noted that this isn’t just a state problem; Tenafly’s unique topography, marked by cliffs and steep inclines, exacerbates stormwater runoff and erosion.

Building heights and housing densities surfaced as contentious topics, juxtaposing the benefits of taller buildings offering more ground-level open spaces, public transit, and affordable housing against possible aggravation of heat and climate impacts.

Council member Lauren Dayton raised what she considers a pressing concern: the trend of larger buildings replacing older, smaller structures, leading to amplified flooding and rising resident complaints. She highlighted Tenafly’s distinct challenges compared to other New Jersey regions.

The council appeared earnest to explore zoning changes raised by Novak, discussing potential mandates for French drains or dry wells and the promotion of large shade trees for bio-retention and mitigating “heat islands” effects. Members entertained the idea of collaborating with several municipal departments, including the planning board and municipal engineers, to garner inputs and identify viable strategies in combating environmental threats.

The council additionally acknowledged the new mandate of integrating “climate vulnerability assessment” in new land-use plans as per the municipal land use law, a tool essential in recognizing threats from natural disasters and steering focused zoning rules.

A particular flashpoint was tree preservation. The council discussed a trend of residents replacing larger trees, crucial for flood control and minimizing the urban heat island effect, with smaller variants. Referencing a 2023 report, Novak advocated for tighter street tree regulations.

Mixed-use development in downtown areas also saw extensive discussion. While developers have lobbied for taller constructions arguing financial viability, council members voiced concerns about the character of the town and burdening local resources. The revelation of a brook running beneath Tenafly’s downtown, shifted in the 1920s, added another layer of complexity to the discourse. Questions arose about the sustainability and prudence of continued development atop this waterway.

Residents played an active role during public comments, with Legend Trimviki advocating for a revision in the local statute to facilitate tree removal for solar power installations, a proposal that the council revealed was under deliberation with the Environmental Commission and the borough attorney to find a balanced resolution.

The prospect of a new senior center and library was introduced, revolving around budgeting strategies. The council expressed interest in exploring suitable venues for these establishments, with members Lauren Dayton, Venugopal Menon, and another leading the initiative.

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