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Conservation groups urge 'no' vote on state land sale plan

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE/ 06/23/15

New Jersey Conservation Foundation
Menantico Ponds Wildlife Management Area property
TRENTON - Speaking today on the Statehouse steps, Assemblyman John McKeon and representatives of New Jersey conservation groups urged the state not to sell an 81-acre section of the Menantico Ponds Wildlife Management Area in Cumberland County for industrial development.

"The sell-off of such a large, significant piece of Menantico Ponds Wildlife Management Area sets a terrible precedent for the state's stewardship of preserved public lands," said Dr. Emile DeVito, Manager of Science and Stewardship at New Jersey Conservation Foundation. "If this sale is approved, it will open the floodgates for selling preserved lands all over the state."

"I have worked successfully to secure funding for open space preservation for many years," said McKeon, who serves as vice chair of the Assembly's Environment and Solid Waste Committee. "We know how precious our land is in New Jersey - that is why people in New Jersey have supported public funding for parks and open space over and over since 1961. It is imperative that we use Green Acres money for its intended use, preserving open space."

The State House Commission is scheduled to vote this Thursday, June 25, on the proposed sale of the 81-acre property in Millville. This sale, known as a "diversion," would be one of the largest in state history.

The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) bought the forested property in July 2013 to expand the Wildlife Management Area and buffer it from Route 55. The acquisition was part of a 40-year effort to protect the headwaters of the pristine Menantico and Manumuskin rivers.

Officials in Millville and Cumberland County objected to the purchase after the fact, saying they had wanted the land for economic development. The DEP then agreed to sell the land to a city or county agency.

The DEP proposal must be approved by the State House Commission, an agency that controls the sale and leasing of state-owned properties.

Representatives of the conservation groups strongly urged the State House Commission to reject the proposed sale this Thursday.

"What Green Acres is proposing here is an outrageous land deal that hurts the environment and the taxpayers," said Jeff Tittel, Director of the New Jersey Chapter of the Sierra Club. "This is not only a giveaway of open space; it's an abuse of power. The Green Acres program is taking land that has been bought for the public and held in the public trust and diverting it for private development."

Curt Gellerman, a retired 37-year employee of the Green Acres/DEP Program who led the purchase of the property for the state, objected to the proposed sale in a statement read at the event. "A diversion of protected land this size is unprecedented, especially without any public benefit," he said.

"This property is one of the largest tracts ever proposed for diversion from preserved status to industrial development. Generally, diversions are done for projects considered in the 'public good,' such as road or utility improvements, not private industry," said Tim Dillingham, Executive Director for the American Littoral Society. "The DEP is proposing the sale of the Durand tract with the eventual speculative intent that a private entity will buy the Green Acres preserved property and develop it for industrial purposes."

"The DEP-proposed diversion is a slap in the face to the ongoing and oft-repeated public mandate for open space preservation," said Jane Morton Galetto, President of the Citizens United to Protect the Maurice River and its Tributaries. "We have an expectation that our elected officials and the State House Commission will listen to the voice of the people."

"The DEP preserved this land because of its high-value threatened and endangered species habitat," DeVito said. "During the public comment period on the proposed diversion earlier this year, the state received 3,000 citizen comments opposing the sale and about five in favor. How can they now disregard that in favor of commercial development?"

"This land fits every criteria for open space acquisition," added Tittel. "It's part of a greenway, connects to existing open space, has endangered species, is environmentally sensitive, and the owners wanted it preserved."

"If the pending diversion of Green Acres' preserved lands is approved by the members of the State House Commission, it will damage one of the most successful land preservation programs U.S. history," said Tom Wells of The Nature Conservancy. "Sale of these critical natural lands, for undefined private industrial use would violate the trust placed in the Green Acres Program by New Jersey voters for over half a century."

In his statement, Gellerman said officials in Millville and Cumberland County were aware ahead of time that the 81-acre property was being preserved. "The former owners had their real estate broker approach Green Acres/DEP about buying this land," he said. "The state had a history of buying land in the area, this property had been on the open real estate market for five or six years, and two other potential buyers had decided not to move forward with purchasing it. The local city residents did not want to see this parcel developed. The tract is surrounded by protected open space and inaccessible road frontage.

"As is typical in our Green Acres acquisition process," Gellerman continued, "we sent out several notifications to the local government - both municipal and county - months prior to any technical work towards acquiring the property. These letters ask the local governments and officials if they have any knowledge of hazardous issues or environmental concerns with the offered property. Local government had ample time to object to the state's purchase then, but instead the local officials waited until the land was added to the state's system of Wildlife Management Areas to demand it be transferred over for development. The local governments have not even identified a clear end use for this property yet."

"This piece of land was preserved with public funding through an open public process. It provides public good by protecting wildlife habitat," pointed out Jennifer M. Coffey, Executive Director of the Association of New Jersey Environmental Commissions (ANJEC). "If this tract is allowed to be diverted for industrial use, it would be a severe blow not only to the environment, but also to the public's trust."

"The proposed sale amounts to a net loss of acreage for the Menantico Ponds Wildlife Management Area, a magnet for birdwatching, hunting, fishing and other outdoor recreation activities," said Kelly Mooij, Vice President of Governmental Relations, New Jersey Audubon Society. "This visitation generates economic revenue, and this property is critical not only in its own right for ecological reasons, but also as an attraction to the local area."

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