State’s Proposal to Swap Green Acres Draws Fire From ‘Green’ Groups

Diversion of large tract could set precedent for redeveloping other significant parcels of protected property

Agency wants to trade Millville tract it just purchased, calling its redevelopment critical economic recovery of region

The state wants to swap 81 acres of Green Acres land it purchased for $335,000 just 10 months ago for a much larger parcel in rural Cumberland County, a proposal that has drawn heated criticism from conservation groups.

The proposed deal would allow the state Department of Environmental Protection to acquire a minimum of 900 acres to add to the Menantico Ponds Wildlife Management Area in Millville.

The conveyance of the 81 acres would allow the city, its redevelopment agency, or a county improvement authority to redevelop the land, a position the DEP acknowledged in a report on the swap, saying it would be “crucial to future economic recovery in the city and Cumberland County.’’

But environmentalists argued that the plan to sell the tract marks an unprecedented diversion of parkland and open space of this size to allow commercial/industrial development. Past diversions of open space have typically served a public purpose. In rare circumstances, diversions approved for private purposes have been limited to an acre or two, environmentalists said.

“If this transfer is allowed, municipalities and counties could try to use it to justify similar diversions of preserved properties for private use, claiming the need for economic development,’’ said Sandy Batty of the Association of New Jersey Environmental Commissions.

What rankles conservationists is that the proposed swap of previously acquired land occurs at a time when the state is running out of funding to preserve open spaces and the Christie administration has failed come up with a plan to support funding of those efforts.

In explaining its rationale, the DEP said it would use the $367,000 in proceeds from the sale to purchase 900 acres of replacement property, known as the Holly Farm property, an environmentally sensitive parcel the agency has long sought to acquire.

“Therefore, the DEP believes that, on balance, the substition of 900 acres at the Holly Farm property for approximately 81 acres of the former Durand Glass property will not have a negative environmental impact on the surrounding area,’’ the report said.

In its report, however, even the DEP conceded it might not be able to acquire the Holly Farm tract. If not, the agency said it will identify other suitable land for purchase in Cumberland County.

Environmentalists questioned why DEP is even trying to replace the Durand property with a portion of the Holly Farm in Millville. They said the city of Millville’s Planning Board approved a development plan for the tract that stated “the remaining 930 acres (of the Holly Farm tract) more or less be undeveloped open space and will be permanently preserved.’’

According to the DEP report, development of the so-called Durant tract could create 1,000 jobs in an economically distressed part of the state. In defending the swap, the report said it is one of the few (tracts of land) available in the region that has direct rail access, public sewer and water lines that run through the property.

Conservationists argued otherwise.

Emil DeVito of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation said the Durand tract’s enormous environmental value led the DEP to purchase the tract in July 2013.

“The department knew it was critical habitat for numerous threatened, rare, and possibly endangered species,’’ he said. “What rational basis would the NJDEP have to sell habitat to allow development that would destroy such critical public-trust resources?’’

Jane Galetto of the Citizens United to Protect the Maurice River and its tributaries added, “If we can’t trust the NJDEP to protect properties that are precious to the state, who can we trust?’’

The proposed land swap still needs approval of the Statehouse Commission, which is not expected to act on the proposal until August.