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Seton Hall accused of contributing to flooding in local neighborhoods

Libre Jones and her husband moved to the Ivy Hill neighborhood in Newark — just steps from Seton Hall’s campus — in early 2021. While they couldn’t afford a home in South Orange, Ivy Hill offered proximity to the suburbs, a good school system, and a quiet, neighborly community.

“It really just looked like the perfect place,” Jones said. 

Months later, that perfect place was overrun with floodwater from Hurricane Ida. Water began to spill into Jones’s basement through her toilet, soaking through furniture and contaminating personal items with unsanitary water. With her insurance failing to cover the $25,000 of structural damage, not to mention the irreplaceable sentimental value of lost family photos, Jones’s life was turned upside down. 

“Everything has to be re-furnished,” she said. “Everything.”

Jones says the flood was exacerbated by Seton Hall’s expanding facilities. She’s not alone.

When Ken Walters moved to Ivy Hill in 1983, Seton Hall’s campus was much quieter than it is today. With only a handful of buildings and significant greenspace, Seton Hall had room to grow. And it did. As the University built more structures on its 58-acre urban campus, the school’s population increased and the number of permeable surfaces for water to soak into decreased. 

Flooding just off campus isn’t new, nor is it limited to major storms like Ida. As early as 2001, water flowing from campus backed up pipes in Ivy Hill so severely that city engineers raised concerns with the University’s drainage system. But development on campus continued. 

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Ida caused significant flooding off campus in fall 2021 (courtesy of @setonhallchicks)

Twenty years after these concerns were first brought to Seton Hall’s administration, Ida devastated much of New Jersey, totaling cars and soaking some homes in South Orange and Newark in more than five feet of water. The destruction was worsened, Walters and other locals say, by Seton Hall and its expansion, which they connect to racism and skirted environmental reviews. 

University spokesperson Laurie Pine said Seton Hall is ready to work with the community and its leaders. 

“We pride ourselves in our role as good neighbors and believe investing in our students and communities is essential,” Pine said. “We continue to foster dialogue, sponsor community activities, and support sustainable growth – as we have for many decades, As we make improvements to our campus, including facilities that are also intended for the community’s benefit, we strictly follow municipal construction rules and environmental regulations. ”

Locals are not so confident in the University’s motives.

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Seton Hall’s stormwater flows into Newark’s aging infrastructure, built in the 1700s, well before the area became a densely populated suburb. Seton Hall’s construction projects, according to a new community group called the Ivy Hill Flood Report, are overwhelming Newark’s infrastructure and causing water — possibly contaminated by raw sewage — to flood dozens of homes in the neighborhood. 

For Walters, this meant six figures of water damage destroying the files and computer systems he needed for his job as a communications consultant. He hasn’t been able to work since.

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Ken Walters showed locals how pipes from the University lead into Newark. (Daniel O'Connor | The Setonian)

“It was one of those unbelievable experiences,” Walters said. “You know, when you lose everything, all your equipment… really your livelihood, your life, that takes a toll on you.”

No clear agreement exists on the use of the local water infrastructure, which predates the founding of the University and the incorporation of South Orange Village. The Village’s stormwater drainage plan confirms that much of Seton Hall’s stormwater flows eastward towards Ivy Hill, which then floods despite being devoid of any bodies of water.

The underground pipes aren’t the only way Seton Hall is accused of pushing its water across the municipal border. Two drainage pipes run from the campus parking garage, opening just a few feet from a boundary from Ivy Hill Park, a county-managed park that abuts Seton Hall.

The park, downhill from the University, floods even during minor rainstorms. Damage to retaining walls shows clear signs of water running from campus into the park. Friday’s mild rainstorm did not cause widespread flooding across the Garden State. However, water running from Seton Hall’s campus saturated much of Ivy Hill Park, submerging some walking paths under centimeters of water.

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Water runs from the campus parking garage into Ivy Hill Park. Water from parking structures is required by federal and state regulations to flow into separate drainage systems to address contamination from motor oils and to prevent stormwater from flowing into sewer systems.(Daniel O'Connor | The Setonian)

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Friday’s mild rainstorm did not cause widespread flooding across the Garden State. However, water running from Seton Hall’s campus saturated much of Ivy Hill Park, submerging some walking paths under centimeters of water. (Daniel O'Connor | The Setonian)

“It’s going to affect animals, soil erosion, the public — everything,” Walters said.

“All the geese are totally gone,” Jones added.

Writing on behalf of the University, Pine said the school empathizes with those affected by the water.

“Seton Hall deeply values our relationships with our local communities and always takes their concerns seriously,” Pine said. “We empathize with our Newark neighbors who have experienced damage to their property, as well as distress, following severe weather events that have, unfortunately, become far more frequent in recent years. ”

Local concerns are compounded by a proposed expansion of the Richie Regan recreation center on campus, which many — including Newark Mayor Ras Baraka — fear will add to the problem. 

Baraka submitted a letter asking the South Orange Planning Board to delay approving the expansion, but Planning Board Chairman Harold Colton-Max said at a Nov. 7 meeting that Seton Hall would have to agree to such an extension. 

Representing Seton Hall before the board, attorney Elnardo Webster denied the mayor’s request.

In order to allay flooding concerns, the University has promised the creation of a retention basin and a porous parking structure, but they estimate it will only address a portion of the runoff.

The planning board waived and deferred certain topography and stormwater aspects of the environmental review process — required by local ordinances and standard for such construction projects — at least until after the project is approved. 

“This happens quite frequently… where we get requests for waivers from some, in some cases most, of the requirements,” Colton-Max said at the meeting.

“Why would you give them a waiver to defer it until after?” Jones said in an interview. “Once you’re at the planning board and you have [been] approved, you’re going to build.”

Speaking at the planning meeting, Webster said any solutions would have to come from both municipalities and Essex County.

Newark City Councilman Dupré Kelly attended the meeting, calling for cooperation.

“I grew up near Seton Hall, I don’t have a problem with Seton Hall,” Kelly said. “I just want the residents to be looked out for.”

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Water appears to flow underground from Seton Hall to Newark's aging, narrow pipes. (Daniel O'Connor | The Setonian)

Several members of the planning board, including Colton-Max, could not be reached, as their contact information is not readily available in the municipal directory.

The next meeting of the board, which is expected to approve the plan, is scheduled for Dec. 5. Until then, Seton Hall’s neighbors cross their fingers, wishing away the next Ida. 

“We’re just basically being taken advantage of,” Jones said. “If we get hit, all of our blocks are in the firing line, and we’re in trouble again.”

Daniel O’Connor can be reached at daniel.oconnor1@student.shu.edu. Find him on Twitter @itsDanOConnor.

Editor's note: This story was updated on Nov. 18 to reflect the plans for a porous parking structure on the site.

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