State Clears Sale of Environmentally Sensitive Property — for Second Time

Tom Johnson | October 3, 2014 | Energy & Environment
Golf course and senior housing could displace endangered species, including Pine Barrens tree frog

pine barrens tree frog
The state has once again approved the sale of environmentally sensitive property in an area described by conservationists as a haven for endangered species, such as the Pine Barrens tree frog, bald eagles, and redheaded woodpeckers.

The sale of 1,550 acres to Millville 1350 LLC for $4 million was affirmed by the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities this week — four years after the agency originally approved the deal. The developer plans to build an 18-hole golf course and 950 senior-housing units on the parcel, which was owned by Atlantic City Electric.

The original deal fell through when the state Division of Rate Counsel and conservation groups challenged the BPU’s decision in the appellate court, which remanded the matter back to the agency.

The crux of the dispute centered on whether a $3.5 million offer from the state Department of Environmental Protection was a better deal than the developer’s $4 million bid. That issue was rendered mostly moot when DEP withdrew its offer after the court remanded the case back to the BPU.

“Ultimately, DEP decided it was not interested in purchasing the property,’’ said an attorney with the BPU.

Map shows the protected open space of the Manumuskin River and Menantico Creek watersheds in Cumberland County.

Because of its ecological importance, the DEP since 1999 had made four offers to buy the parcel, which is surrounded by 27,000 acres of pristine forest and wetlands already set aside by the state and Nature Conservancy.

The decision by the BPU, approved unanimously by the three commissioners voting, is the latest twist in a long-running battle between conservationists, the utility, and the city over what to do with the property known as the Holly Farm. (The cultivation of holly trees helped Millville earn the nickname of the Holly City.)

The utility originally planned to build a coal-generating plant on the property, but like most other electric utilities in the state, ACE has divested all of its power plants since the state deregulated the energy sector.

The site lies within the heart of thousands of acres of preserved land between the Manumuskin and Menantico creeks, which are both designated National Wild and Scenic Rivers. Protecting the biological diversity of those two watersheds has been a focal point of conservation efforts for years.

“The DEP and environmental community has been trying to preserve this property for 15 years,’’ said Edward Lloyd, an attorney who represented environmental groups in challenging the sale in the appellate division.

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club agreed, “This is one of the most environmentally sensitive areas in the state that remains undeveloped,’’ he said. “This is a lot about land speculation and taking care of developers.’’

But the BPU, in approving the sale, concluded in its order that Millville 1350’s proposal represented fair market value and the best price obtainable. The order also said the sale would not affect the ability of Atlantic City Electric to provide safe and adequate service to its customers.

The sale closed back in 2010 after the original decision by the BPU.

BPU Commissioner Joseph Fiordaliso, noting the case has been kicked around for 14 years, said it was time to settle the issue.