Appellate Court Blocks DEP From Building Road Along Popular Rail Trail

Tom Johnson | January 6, 2015 | Energy & Environment
Some environmentalists contend that court’s stay indicates they have a good chance of winning case against state agency

Parts of the popular Lacey rail trail are located near the Pinelands National Reserve.
The state has been blocked, at least temporarily, from building a road along nearly two miles of a popular recreational trail, parts of which lie near the Pinelands National Reserve.

A case brought by two environmental groups challenged a decision by the state Department of Environmental Protection to issue a permit for the long-contested project, which had been rejected twice by the agency in 2006 and 2009.

A state appeals court late last month, however, found merit in the groups’ arguments, issuing a stay until the challenge is decided, a ruling that may indicate that the environmentalists’ case could ultimately prevail.

The 1.9-mile bypass within the Barnegat Bay Railroad right-of-way would consist of two 11-foot travel lanes, as well as an eight-foot pedestrian/bike pathway in an area that offers walkers and bicyclists access to a multitude of state, county, and local parks.

The controversy is part of a growing dispute between conservationists and the state over converting lands previously set aside for open space, typically with taxpayers’ dollars, to other nonrecreational uses.

For example, the DEP is holding a public hearing today in Trenton on a plan to sell 81 acres of land it acquired in Millville for open-space preservation just 18 months ago, which is now to be used for commercial and industrial purposes.

This past October, the state Board of Public Utilities approved the sale of 1,500 nearby acres in Millville to a developer for $4 million to build a golf course and senior housing. The DEP originally sought to buy the tract, known as the Holly Farm, at least four times because it is surrounded by 27,000 acres of pristine forests, wetlands, and habitat for numerous endangered species. The agency later decided it did not want to buy the land.

In a bill (A-3969) pending on Gov. Chris Christie’s desk, there is provision in the legislation that could open up Liberty State Park, the state’s most heavily visited park, to private development.

Beyond the conversion of open space to other uses, critics also are upset about building natural gas pipelines and high-voltage transmission lines through previously preserved land.

For opponents of the conversion of the Lacey rail trail, the court’s decision was welcome.

“This will delay the project for at least a year, and we now believe we have a very good chance of winning,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, which challenged the permit in the appellate division along with the Lacey Rail Trail Commission.

A spokesman for the DEP declined comment, saying the case is still pending in the courts.

The rail line, once operated by the Central Jersey Railroad, was abandoned in 1973 and has 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, including he Forked River Game Farm and Double Tree State Park and historic village.

In approving the conversion, the DEP said the project made a number of adjustments, including truncating the road to avoid stream crossings in wetlands; minimizing impacts to Cedar Creek in the Pinelands, a popular spot for canoeing; and creating an eight-foot pedestrian walkway.

That is far from enough, according to Tittel. “We have plenty of roads in New Jersey, but we have very few rail trails in areas like this,’’ he said.

In court filings, opponents of the project argued there are existing and alternate routes the DEP could have chosen for the road, which do not go through an environmentally sensitive or recreational area.