Saving the Palisades – Again

March 10, 2014 Updated: March 10, 2014

Bergen Battles

What do flat screen TVs, a national historic landmark and NJ political dysfunction have to do with each other?  Plenty, if you live in North Jersey.  The current battle waging in Bergen County right now, pitting town against town is not Bridgegate. It is the battle over the height of the proposed new LG headquarters in Englewood Cliffs.

National Natural Historic Landmark

I have a little background on this, since I used to be the NJ engineer for the Palisades Interstate Park Commission and I actually narrated the documentary about the creation and the building of the Palisades Interstate Park which invites millions of visitors from around the world each year. The Park is part of me, I grew up in it, had my first real job there and volunteer there all the time. Friends and family still work there and I will never get the place out of my blood.  I am not the only one who feels this way. The Palisades are home to so many from New York, New Jersey and folks spread far and wide across the world who used to live here and still get homesick for the solidness, the ancient beauty and the lush fragrant woods and rocky hiking paths of the Palisades, and the mile wide expanse of Hudson River that graces nearly every photo of the 500 ft tall sheer cliffs.

There are many ways to experience the Palisades but my favorite by far is from the water.  Just like the Manhattan skyline is appreciated from a distance, so too, the cliffs towering beauty is appreciated from a distance. Few places in the world have not been spoiled by an oil derrick or a gas fracking rig, or mountaintop removal, or just plain urban sprawl.  But it is truly remarkable that within a few miles of the largest city in the United States, unspoiled pristine views of a national historic landmark and National Natural Landmark formed millions of years ago still exist for millions to enjoy. That is until now.

Corporate Arrogance or Political Dysfunction?

One corporation, with the help of an ethically compromised Mayor and Planning Board is set to destroy what so many have saved up till now.  The story is one of corporate arrogance, true but what strikes me as an engineer and former elected official who once sat on Tenafly’s municipal planning board, one town to the North along the Palisades, is the clear example of the dysfunction New Jersey politics and government structure.  That one Mayor could do so much damage to a town is on full display.

Mayors and Land Use Law

In NJ the Mayor needs the most money to run for office, and he also gets to appoint not only the Borough Engineer, and Borough Attorney, but every single member of the Planning Board except one – appointed by the Council.  If you want to reform land use in NJ you need to start with the Mayor who controls these land use decisions.  Often professionals hired by the Mayor, like the Planner, want to keep their jobs and so they often carry out the Mayor’s wishes to stay employed from year to year.

For many, the obvious villain is LG, but the problem is bigger than one company.  Applicants to planning Boards ask for variances all the time.  As an engineer in private practice I spend a lot of time advising clients on the law and what a town will or will not allow. But the variance granted in Englewood Cliffs to exceed a height ordinance of 35 feet by over a hundred feet was outright absurd and would never be asked for in a town where the Governing body is truly looking out for the residents.  In all my years of designing site plans in North Jersey the only other time I was asked to work on a plan that had an egregious request for a height variance, (which I secretly prayed would not be granted) was a six story apartment building in a single family zone, where the attorney  was  the infamous Dennis Oury (who later pled guilty later to fraud charges) who may  have thought he had a backroom deal with the town .  Thankfully the town turned down that project. Applicants can ask for the moon, but honest Mayors and Planning Boards are obligated to refuse unreasonable requests. That’s how it works. 

Something’s Just Not Right

That LG thought they could ask for such a variance is disturbing enough, the fact that it was actually granted, should have brought in the investigators. That a judge upheld it should raise even more eyebrows.  The fact that  Mayor Joseph Parisi and the Planning Board, after the fact, are attempting to change the zoning laws to allow 150 ft tall buildings in an effort to escape a charge of spot zoning for one particular project is telling and should be extremely worrisome to the residents of Englewood Cliffs.

Pre-Election Political Propaganda

Unfortunately, the political propaganda being strewn about in this debate is disturbing.  State Senator Paul Sarlo, CEO for one of the largest construction contractors in the state, jumped on the “jobs” argument for a rally with labor unions at the site, even though Englewood Cliffs is not his district and the debate is simply a matter of the height variance, not the merits of LG building a new headquarters at that location. LG has already had a lower building just up the street for years with no outcry.  Bergen County Executive Donovan who is running for re-election this year, also jumped on the jobs bandwagon to support the project, and she is associated with David Samson, Chairman of the Port Authority, who is embroiled in the Bridgegate scandal for making real estate deals.

The View from New York

Saying that it is only the New Yorkers complaining is neither fair nor accurate.  Six Bergen County, NJ  Mayors from neighboring communities have all come out against the height of the building, as has the Palisades Interstate Park Commission, which would be most affected by the proposed tower.  In  addition, four former New Jersey Governors have also signed a letter requesting the height of the building be lowered.  New Yorkers, who get the most treasured view of the cliffs will also be adversely impacted. This building is viewed by Americans who treasure our natural national landmarks, as the equivalent of putting a Trump casino tower on the rim of the Grand Canyon.  The reason this view is so beloved is because it looks the way it did when the Lenape lived along the Hudson and before Henry Hudson first sailed up it.  Putting a tower there ruins the entire view that remains.  Let me repeat, the ENTIRE view for not one but two states.  As someone schooled in site design, construction, topography and map making the LG argument that the building would blend into its surroundings is absurd.  It will be visible for miles like Sauron’s tower from the Lord of the Rings. 

LG Not the Only Threat to the Palisades

Currently the efforts to get LG to change their mind and lower the height, will be moot if the Borough of Englewood Cliffs gets their way and changes the zoning laws. There will be not just LG to fight but a whole slew of companies – many of whom have highly placed political patronage appointees in positions of power, who just adore construction over preservation and quality of life. NJ is a vipers den of hungry politicians who look to construction companies, engineering firms, land use attorneys, bond counsels and planners to fund their campaigns.  If we look only at LG as the villain in this story and ignore the weaknesses in NJ Municipal law, I fear things will get much, much worse and we will lose the Palisades forever.


Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.