‘Green’ Groups Move to Block Road Along Popular Rail Trail

State Department of Environmental Protection OKs construction project, conservationists file appeal with Appellate Court

Parts of the popular Lacey rail trail are located near the Pinelands National Reserve.
A pair of environmental groups plan to seek an injunction today to prevent a nearly two-mile road from being built along a popular recreational trail within the Barnegat Branch Railroad right of way, parts of which lie near the Pinelands National Reserve.

The project, under consideration by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection for more than nine years, has twice before been rejected by the agency, in 2006 and 2009.

But the DEP reversed course on October 16, 2014 and issued the necessary permit to allow the project to go forward, a process that could lead to thousands of mature trees being felled. It could also compromise pedestrian safety along the trail, identified in the Ocean County Master Plan as a recreational/conservation corridor, according to critics of the proposal.

The 1.9-mile bypass road would consist of two 11-foot travel lanes, as well as an eight-foot pedestrian/bike pathway in an area that offers walkers and bikers access to a multitude of state, county, and local parks.

The injunction, to be filed in Superior Court Appellate Division in Trenton, is being sought by the Sierra Club of New Jersey and the Lacey Rail Trail Environmental Commission. The rail line, once operated by the Central Jersey Railroad, was abandoned in 1973 and has been since served as public open space and recreational area.

The trail winds its way through pine and oak forests with direct and indirect access to many parks and recreational areas, including the Forked River Game Farm and Double Tree State Park and historic village.

In approving the project’s so-called Coastal Area Facilities Review Act (CAFRA) permit, the DEP last month said the project made a number of adjustments that warranted approval, according to Larry Ragonese, a spokesman for the agency.

“We made them go back to the drawing board,’’ Ragonese said. “What they have done meets our requirements.’’

Those changes include truncating the project to avoid stream crossings in wetlands; minimizing impacts to Cedar Creek in the Pinelands, a popular site for canoeing; creating an eight-foot pedestrian walkway; and avoiding demolition of a house in the way of a new bypass, according to Ragonese.

In their filing with the court, critics say there are existing and alternative routes that would adequately meet the transportation needs alleged to be met by the approved project, which have less impact on sensitive areas, habitats, and species.

Further, the evidence upon which the DEP relied to support the need for the project to meet transportation needs is outdated and overstated, according to the filing.

In addition, the environmental groups contend that the current configuration of the roadway does not meet the required state stormwater regulations and the issuance of the permit is arbitrary and a violation of law.

Ragonese said the agency did not look at the transportation aspects of the proposal. “Whether the people in this town want the road is up to the community,’’ he said.

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, disagreed. “The whole purpose of the rail trails is to provide recreation,’’ he said. “To us, it’s just another example of the Christie administration pushing development over the environment.’’