Mayors’ suit aims to protect communities

By Dave Fried
Robbinsville, NJ (Monday, August 23, 2010)- Earlier this month, Robbinsville, Hamilton and East Windsor took the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection to court to block a classic bait-and-switch: Enticing us to turn over land to widen the New Jersey Turnpike with promises of $15 million in reforestation funds, then shipping the money elsewhere after the bulldozing had begun (“Three townships sue state over tree money – Reforestation funds diverted to operate parks,” Aug. 12).

We sued not because we wanted to; we sued because we had to. From the start, our willingness to cooperate with the Turnpike widening had everything to do with the trees — no reforestation, no deal. The fact that I now have to explain this to the Department of Environmental Protection is mind-boggling.
Had we not gone to court, the New Jersey Turnpike Authority would have transferred our funds to the DEP under the No Net Loss Reforestation Act, but the monies promised to our three towns would have been used to run state parks. While Judge Linda Feinberg technically didn’t grant a request for an injunction, the effect is the same: According to the Turnpike, the money is staying put for 60 days. Absent a deal, we head to court Oct. 1.
DEP officials have tried to defend themselves by saying the Turnpike will replant some trees along the expanded highway, although the amount budgeted for the entire 35 miles appears to be less than would have gone just to our three communities.
Not only is the Turnpike planting clearly inadequate, it’s not even the point. Our lawsuit isn’t just about the trees and the buffer, although our first concern is the quality of life of those living closest to the expansion project. Our action is about ensuring that state government learns once and for all that when it deals with towns, promises must be kept. If we mayors are to represent our residents with any credibility, we must hold the state to its word. After this episode, what mayor in his or her right mind would ever sign an agreement with the state or the Turnpike?
When the DEP told us that the Turnpike is planting trees in the right of way and that is doesn’t “understand why the mayors are so upset,” it tells me one thing: No one at the DEP has ever been a mayor. The Turnpike itself said the plantings in the right of way are inadequate because they did not have enough right of way, and it went on to say that they would not begin planting until 2014. So these poor residents would have to live with this mess for years. Had the township known the truth, we would never have agreed to the transfer of our lands to the Turnpike.
It is clear that no one from the DEP ever had to sit in a constituent’s living room and look into the fearful eyes of a roomful of residents, people who are terrified that the bulldozers will destroy their summer barbecues and their property values. They have never been the person who had to reassure his townspeople that the parkland transfer would be OK, because Robbinsville was promised it would receive $3 million to replant every tree.
If they had ever been that person, perhaps they would grasp how it felt to know that, on the day the State House Commission voted to transfer your parkland to the Turnpike, the DEP had already made plans to spend that $3 million somewhere else – without being bothering to tell you. After all, the DEP spokesman said, it was for “the greater good.” That’s a $115,000-a-year spokesman, by the way, a person added to the payroll just recently, so he could opine to mayors like me – who have had to lay off firefighters and close on Fridays – about the need for making the tough decisions.
Or try being the one to wonder whether it was important for the Turnpike to fire up those bulldozers before you caught on, because without the widening project and the resulting devastation, there would be no $3 million in No Net Loss funds for the DEP to steal in the first place. That is a deception on a scale that is hard to contemplate. East Windsor Township Mayor Mironov, Hamilton Township Mayor John Bencivengo and I have already suffered the loss of energy receipts funds that by rights belong to our municipalities, which the state took “for the greater good.” And we’ve seen the 2 percent property-tax cap signed into law, but not the tool kit that will make it work.
Enough is enough. If we mayors don’t stand up to the DEP over something this egregious, there will be no end to the behavior. We have to fight. For the greater good.
Dave Fried is the mayor of Robbinsville.

Related Resource:

The Times of Trenton- Mayors’ suit aims to protect communities