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Planners, Environmentalists Worry Restored, Preserved Marshlands Being Put At Risk

Proposed legislation would combine Meadowlands Commission with Sports and Exposition Authority

heron open space

Many view the Hackensack Meadowlands as a jewel of regional planning, ever since a commission was created in 1969 to provide for its orderly development.

It helped transform an area known for its illegal garbage dumps, pig farms, and mosquitoes into a robust economic engine for the region while preserving and restoring thousands of acres of marshlands, and creating a little-recognized ecotourism destination in the nation’s most densely populated state.

But some of the state’s most prestigious planning organizations are worried that this could change. They, as well as environmentalists, are calling on Gov. Chris Christie to veto a bill (S-2647) that would consolidate the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission with the Sports and Exposition Authority.

The groups include New Jersey Future and the Regional Plan Association, as well as representatives from environmental organizations dedicated to regional planning efforts in the New Jersey Highlands and the Pinelands and seven other associations. All have been concerned with efforts during the Christie administration to whittle away regional planning in environmentally sensitive areas.

They argue that the bill, rushed through the Democratic-controlled Legislature with little notice, would unravel a longstanding and highly successful regional planning effort, transferring authority to review development applications to the 14 municipalities in the 30.4-square-mile district. Perhaps more importantly, it would give towns the authority to grant exceptions to ordinances and building regulations, with no requirement that they conform to the Meadowlands master plan.

Its proponents, including Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen) its sponsor, said that it would advance economic growth in the region.

“A unified agency to coordinate and plan for economic growth and infrastructure improvements in the Meadowlands region is the most effective way to realize smart growth, provide municipal services, control flooding, and complete development of the Sports Complex,’’ said Sarlo in a press release after the bill was voted out of the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee.

But Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, disagreed. “This bill is the opposite of smart growth, by turning planning on its head,’’ he said. “The bill is really about turning the Meadowlands into a new high-density development area without real planning or environmental protections.’’

A press release from New Jersey Future argued that the bill fundamentally restructures and weakens the Meadowlands program in several ways.

Among them are a provision that would end regional tax sharing and puts the state on the hook for municipal subsidy payments. To replace the regional tax program, the bill proposes a three percent tax assessment on hotels in the district.

Sarlo argued the change would bring more fairness and effectiveness to the existing funding mechanism, which would fully fund towns that have received money from the program, but also relieving the pressure passing on tax receipts to other communities.

Another big change opposed by critics is a provision to plan, manage, and implement projects in Liberty State Park, the state’s most popular park located in Jersey City on the Hudson River. The park is now run by the state Department of Environmental Protection.

“The park that is supposed to celebrate freedom, liberty, and gateway to America could instead be turned into shopping centers and amusement parks,’’ said Tittel, fearing that the law could lead to privatization of the facility.

The groups also are concerned about a provision that would all but eliminate the Meadowlands Environmental Research Institute, which they say has played an essential role in restoration of marshes, waterways, and wildlife. Its functions would be shifted to nonprofit organizations without providing funds for these activities.

Finally, the bill would reestablish the Meadowlands Transportation Planning District, which would be responsible for developing a new regional transportation plan that would take into account new growth in the region.

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