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Panel Temporarily Delays Transfer of Green Acres Tract for Development

DEP claims conveyance of 80 acres of protected property has potential to create 1,000 jobs

Click to expand/close -- Map shows the protected open space of the Manumuskin River and Menantico Creek watersheds in Cumberland County.

The State House Commission yesterday temporarily blocked the controversial conveyance of 81 acres of a state wildlife management area to the city of Millville or its designee for potential development.

The parcel, purchased by the state Green Acres program less than two years ago, is known as the Durand tract and is part of the Menantico Ponds Wildlife Management Area. Surrounded on three sides by protected open space, the land is home to numerous threatened and endangered species and is a migratory stopover for more than 120 types of birds.

The proposed conveyance by the state Department of Environmental Protection would be the largest diversion of Green Acres property in the history of the program, according to conservationists who strongly opposed the deal. They questioned why already protected open space could be converted to possible industrial use.

In exchange for the property, the state would receive $395,000 -- $25,000 more than it originally paid. The money would be used to buy an equal amount of land in either Millville or elsewhere in Cumberland County.

The commission balked at the deal in a meeting yesterday largely on technical grounds, based on an opinion from the Office of Legislative Services. The three-page memo said the commission failed to provide proper public notice and indicated that the appraised value of the tract, nearly two-and-one-half years old, “is potentially stale.’’

The issue is likely to be reconsidered at the next meeting of the commission, probably in September so the conveyance still could win approval, a point not lost on critics.

“We’re going to continue to push to defeat this,’’ said Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society. “This is just plain wrong and contrary to what the public wanted’’ when they approved an open-space ballot question last fall. Others questioned how the state could consider approving the deal as being in the public interest without knowing what the ultimate use of the land will be, according to Tom Wells, director of governmental relations for the New Jersey chapter of the Nature Conservancy.

“There’s not even a purchaser in the wind to buy this,’’ Wells said, who described the deal as reckless. “This is unprecedented in terms of its size and we don’t even know how it will be used.’’

The OLS memo noted that the DEP did hold public hearings on the proposal and received at least 3,000 comments in opposition and less than 10 in favor (from members of the public not directly affiliated with the city or the county).

“It is possible that among these many adverse comments, there are at least some that raise legitimate substantive issues with DEP’s findings and conclusions in this matter,’’ the memo said.

In a report on the conveyance, the DEP said the development of the tract could create 1,000 jobs in an economically distressed part of the state, explaining its rationale for approving the deal.

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, argued that the DEP, however, seriously undervalued the worth of the tract when compared with other lands being sold in the area. “If approved, this would be the worst sellout of open space in 50 years of the Green Acres program,” he said.”

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