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Dismal Swamp development proposed at Edison hearing


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Dismal Swamp development proposed at Edison hearing


Written by Bob Makin | Staff Writer | MyCentralJersey.com


EDISON — Like a wedding in the midst of a family feud, members and representatives of two township-based Jehovah’s Witnesses congregations filled one side of Township Council chambers on Thursday night, while environmentalists and other residents sat in vehement opposition.

Many on both sides passionately testified to the Township Council during a state Department of Environmental Protection hearing about a proposed amendment to the township’s Green Acres Recreation and Open Space Inventory (ROSI). The amendment would allow a landlocked developer to build a driveway on a .10-acre portion of the 1,240-acre Dismal Swamp Conservation Area.

An extension of Alexis Lane, the driveway would accommodate a 2,600-square-foot church approved by the township’s Planning Board for construction on 3 acres of land that Delores Visco has donated to the West Edison and South Edison Congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses. A Jehovah’s Witness, Visco owns Inman Sports Center, and her late husband, Nicholas, developed several other properties throughout town.

According to municipal records, the township agreed to allow Visco’s late husband to pave the lot in 1989, six years after he had purchased adjacent property in a tax auction. But Visco died before a project could be developed.

The township designated the lot open space in 1994 and included it in its Green Acres inventory 10 years later. Environmentalists and residents testified that the designation should remain intact to preserve the conservation area’s habitat, preserve wetlands, and avoid flooding and traffic hazards.

Yet, a Green Acres administrator agreed in a July letter to the township that the designation had been made by mistake, which would allow for the amendment. The letter was among dozens of documents submitted for the DEP and the Township Council to review.

“Based on a review of information previously submitted by the township and a review of information in our files, the Green Acres Program had determined that this situation appears to be the ‘bona fide inaccuracy’ standard for ROSI amendments,” wrote David R. Smith, team leader of the DEP’s Bureau of Legal Services and Stewardship. “Municipal documents, including ordinances and resolutions, appear to confirm that the vacation of a portion of Tyler Road in the late 1980s was predicated on providing access to the Visco parcel by constructing the Alexis Lane extension through township property. Normally, this intention would be memorialized on the ROSI through the delineation of an exception area on a survey or tax map or through a notation on the ROSI the first time the parcel was listed by the township, which in this case was in 2004. Therefore, based on our review of the information submitted to date, we believe there is merit to the argument that the listing of the entire parcel on the ROSI was an error.”

Jehovah’s Witnesses testified that their weekly Sunday morning and two 7:30 p.m. weeknight meetings would not be during high-traffic hours.

Flood issues concern many residents along the swamp because of suspected contamination from two toxic sites in and adjacent to it. Flooding was addressed by Robert Morriale, the congregations’ landscape designer, and William Lund, the township engineer involved in the site’s proposed development in the late 1980s. The swamp’s flood issues would be improved rather than aggravated by the church’s landscape design, they said. A detention basin and other means would collect and divert floodwaters from entering neighboring homes and streets, Lund said.

Lund also submitted a DEP map that indicates that the lot in question is upland forest rather than a part of federal priority wetlands that make up a large portion of the Dismal Swamp Conservation Area. He indicated that construction of the church is within DEP regulations because it is within 200 feet of wetlands.

However, Dana Patterson, toxics coordinator of the Edison Wetlands Association based within the Dismal Swamp, submitted a contradictory DEP map that indicates the forest off Alexis Lane is deemed wetlands. She also submitted a photo of the Visco property from the vantage point of Alexis Lane that indicates that the property also contains wetlands.

From the late 1980s to early 1990s, the Visco property was the subject of a federal indictment that said Nicholas Visco presented false information to fill acres of environmentally sensitive wetlands, said Jane Tousman, a local environmentalist who preserved 248 acres of the swamp in the mid-1990s. At the time, Visco was planning to build a housing development within the swamp, Tousman said, but instead ended up having to teach a course on land use as a form of community service.

Robert Spiegel, executive director of the Edison Wetlands Association, testified that the small acreage not only should be protected under a Green Acres designation but also as part of the Dismal Swamp Preservation Act. In 2009, the law established the Dismal Swamp Preservation Commission, which Spiegel chairs.

Other environmentalists documented that the Dismal Swamp, including portions to be developed by the church, are breeding grounds for more than 50 kinds of birds and part of a migratory path for about 25 other species.

Residents described the church’s construction as a Pandora’s box that could open preserved parkland to further development.

The public comment period will close on Nov. 18 to those unable to attend the hearing or who want to provide additional comments and documents. The township then has 60 days to provide the DEP with those materials, as well as a council decision on the matter.

Should the township and the DEP approve the amendment, Visco said, she will sell 10 acres of undeveloped property in the township to the county to preserve as open space and donate an additional 8 acres to the state’s Green Acres Program.

The proposed development of the property she donated to the church was restricted to religious use only by the township.

Article Source: MyCentralJersey.com

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