This land is our land… but for how long?

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by Michele S. Byers, Executive Director, New Jersey Conservation Foundation

Under the banner of creating a business friendly atmosphere, governments facing economic downturns are not only tempted to give away the farm, but also our forests, parks, and other open spaces to private interests.

New Jersey recently decided to give away, through a 30-year lease, 57 acres of a municipal park. The state approved a diversion of public open space in Ocean County’s Stafford Township so a private corporation could use it for their private profit – a precedent so bad that all taxpayers should be concerned for the future of preserved farms and other open spaces we’ve paid for.

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The land in question is 57 acres preserved by a permanent deed restriction in 2006 as part of the Stafford Business Park development. It was a landfill until 1982, when Stafford Township stopped accepting solid waste. Since then, it has been maintained with grasses and has become habitat for threatened and endangered species.

Development of the Stafford Business Park destroyed habitat critical to threatened and endangered species, including a population of northern pine snakes. These snakes are considered threatened in the Pine Barrens and are found in no other regions of New Jersey.

In order to receive Pinelands Commission approval for the habitat damage, the developer, town and county signed a Memorandum of Agreement to preserve adjacent land, including the recently-capped former landfill. This property is now regenerating back to grassland habitat used by pine snakes moving in and out of the adjacent Stafford Forge Wildlife Management Area.

However, the township recently applied for a “diversion” of the land, in order to allow the developer to use it for a solar energy generating facility under a 30-year lease. The Pinelands Commission ignored its original agreement to permanently preserve this habitat, and amended its memorandum of agreement to allow for the facility. The N.J. Department of Environmental Protection approved the diversion, lauding the jobs and clean energy the project will bring. The N.J. State House Commission approved the project on Monday, Nov. 22.

From a conservation perspective, any diversion of open space to some other use is a cause for caution. Yet in reality, there are legitimate reasons to consider a diversion of public lands to other uses, usually when there is no suitable alternative to accomplish another public good, like building a firehouse or widening a road.

The state’s diversion process is designed to weigh these proposals against the public’s established interest in the preserved land. And if a case is compelling enough to approve a diversion, the process is supposed to ensure adequate compensation to the public for releasing the land – usually through additional open space gains so there is no net loss of parkland.

This is where the Stafford case takes on its more disturbing aspects.

The diversion process was rushed to help the developer meet a federal deadline for clean energy incentives. One of the public comment timelines was waived, no appraisals were completed, and virtually no documents were available for public review before the hearings.

Even more troubling for taxpayers, however, is that there is no fair compensation for use of the land. The developer is required to make nominal lease payments to the town, to be used for management of other township open space or recreation programs. The acreage and the species habitat are simply lost for the next 30 years, a lease term that is generally considered tantamount to ownership.

This is a slap at taxpayers and a windfall for the developer.

If you would like more information about conserving New Jersey’s precious land and natural resources, I hope you will consult New Jersey Conservation Foundation’s website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at info@njconservation.org.


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