The state has whiffed again in its bid to acquire a 1,350-acre tract described by conservationists as perhaps the most biologically diverse undeveloped piece of land in New Jersey, a haven to endangered species such as the Pine Barrens tree frog, the bald eagle and the red-headed woodpecker.
In a decision that could put various parts of the Christie administration at odds with one another, the state Board of Public Utilities narrowly authorized the sale of a 1,350-acre tract owned by Atlantic City Electric in Millville to a developer who wants to put a golf course and senior housing on the parcel.
The vote, last month, is the latest twist in a decade-long battle pitting conservationists against the utility and city over what to do with the property, known as the Holly Farm, a place where the cultivation of holly trees helped earn Millville the nickname of The Holly City.
To environmentalists, however, the tract is perhaps the most sensitive piece of land left in New Jersey, a tract the state Department of Environmental Protection had offered up to $3.5 million to preserve under the Green Acres program. Instead, the BPU decided to allow RWV Land and C.M. Livestock LLC acquire the land for $4 million.
That decision came despite opposition from former BPU President Jeanne Fox, who had presided as the agency’s hearing officer in the case and had recommended the Green Acres deal, the Division of Rate Counsel and environmentalists. Beyond the ecological importance of the land, they argued the sale to the state was a better deal.
“I believe this contract is speculative,” Fox told her fellow commissioners, referring to the developer’s bid. “It’s not in the best interests of ratepayers.”
Unlike the upfront cash deal offered by the state, Fox said the developer’s offer was backloaded with the bulk of the money, $3.3 million, being paid out in a balloon payment after four years. The developer would pay only $400,000 at closing and then make $100,000 annual payments thereafter. “There’s lot of risks in this contract,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like this in a utility land sale.”
The state Division of Rate Counsel also opposed the RWV deal. It noted that during the proceedings, all three of the economic experts hired by the DEP, environmental interveners and RWV concluded that the highest monetary offer was the $3.5 million bid by the state Green Acres program.
The site lies within the heart of thousands of acres of preserved land between the Manumuskin and Menantico Creeks, which are both designated as National Wild and Scenic Rivers. Protecting the biological diversity of the those two watersheds has been a focal point of conservation efforts for decades, according to Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.
David Pringle, a lobbyist for the New Jersey Environmental Federation, said the land deal broke a campaign commitment by Gov. Chris Christie. “He said he would say no to development in the wrong places. Instead they chose to destroy critical habitat,” Pringle said.
It was unusually harsh rhetoric from Pringle, whose organization endorsed Christie during the fall campaign and has been averse to criticize the new administration even as other environmentalists rail about the governor’s siphoning of hundreds of millions of dollars in funds dedicated to clean energy projects and energy conservation. A day after Pringle’s comments were published in reports about the decision, Christie notified the federation he would not show up for its annual conference, where he had been invited to be the keynote speaker.
But other BPU commissioners defended the sale, insisting Atlantic City Electric simply made a business decision to accept what they viewed as the most valuable deal it could get.
“The mission of this board is to determine whether a petition is beneficial or not adverse to ratepayers,” said Commissioner Joseph Fiordiliso, one of three board members to vote for the deal, the minimum needed for approval. “I found no compelling evidence that the sales price was not competitive or the ratepayer would be adversely impacted.”
BPU President Lee Solomon said he was satisfied the offer and acceptance constituted “fair market value” for the parcel, adding the agency was not in a position to balance environmental interests with ratepayers’ concerns. Noting the developer still requires several environmental permits, he called the deal a conditional one, which may fall through.
“I am reluctant to tread on the toes of other agencies," Solomon said. “What happens from here on in is the province of environmental regulators who will determine whether it is developed."
For DEP to approve the development project would mark a reversal from the stance the agency has taken since 1999, the year it made the first of four offers to the utility to purchase the land. It initially offered $2.6 million for the tract but later upped the offer to $3.5 million for the site, which its Landscape Project had classified as critical endangered species habitat. The parcel is surrounded by 27,000 acres of pristine forest and wetlands already set aside by the state and Nature Conservancy.
Under current DEP regulations, the developer would have difficulty in obtaining all the necessary permits because it is classified as an area that should not receive sewer extensions under water quality rules, though those rules could be reversed too by the administration.
Atlantic City Electric officials said they were gratified by the agency’s decision in approving the sale. “We did everything which the law required us to do,” said Sandra May, a spokesperson the utility, which serves about a half million people in southern Jersey.
Ed Lloyd, director of the environmental law clinic at Columbia University, who has been representing the environmental community in the case, did not rule out an appeal after the agency’s decision. “Clearly, this is not the end of this case,” he said. “This is far from over."