Deal to preserve 1,800 acres in N.J. watershed near base

Posted: January 20, 2012

Open-space preservation groups are celebrating the imminent completion of a $7.5 million deal to conserve 1,800 acres in Jackson Township, one of the fastest-growing areas of New Jersey.

The area is in the Pinelands and encompasses the headwaters of the Toms River, which drains into ailing Barnegat Bay.

And it is just beyond the end of a runway increasingly being used for combat training at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, Ocean County's largest employer.

As such, the deal touches on many of the state's major issues - sprawl, water quality, the economy, and military readiness.

"This is a win for everyone," said Anthony Cucci, New Jersey director of the Trust for Public Land, a national conservation organization that shepherded the agreement. The trust has worked in the watershed for two decades.

The agreement on the parcel, which has long been identified by conservationists as prime turf, is also thought to be one of the largest recent land conservation deals in the bay's watershed.

Several years in the making, it also is one of the most complicated.

About 400 acres will be transferred to Ocean County to remain in their natural state. The other 1,400 acres, the site of a gravel mining operation that will be allowed to continue, will have restrictions on development.

A conservation easement - through which development rights are "bought" from the owners - includes provisions for some commercial development. But no residential development - a concern of both military officials and water-quality advocates - will be allowed.

The $7.5 million will go to members of the Clayton family, which owns the land and the gravel-mining operation and is headed by William Clayton Sr. of Jackson Township. A family representative said they did not want to be interviewed.

The family's several companies - Clayton Concrete, Clayton Block, and Clayton Sand - have been in the masonry industry since the early 1950s, according to the company website.

Nearly half the money, $3 million, is coming from a Department of Defense national program that seeks to create buffers around bases so potential conflicts - the noise of huge planes coming in low over homes before they land, for instance - can be avoided.

Nationally, although most military bases and other installations were built in remote areas, development has been encroaching.

Neighbors complain about the noise, dust, and smoke. In turn, their lights hamper soldiers' night-vision training.

What prompted the program - in the 1990s - was a woodpecker that took up residence at Fort Bragg, N.C. Throughout the Southeast, the long-leaf pine that is its primary habitat had been replaced by species that were easier to log and regrow.

The trees remained on the base, however, and the birds moved in. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wanted to put limits on training exercises that might disturb the birds, but the situation was resolved through conservation efforts off base.

The military doesn't want to buy the land, maintain it, and, perhaps most expensive of all, have to fence it. So, according to data through 2010, the Department of Defense's "Readiness and Environmental Protection Initiative" has put $131 million toward conserving 174,367 acres nationwide, matched nearly one-for-one by funds from partners.

Dennis Blazak, community planning and liaison officer for the joint base, said that training has expanded. Flights increased from 6,000 "operations" a year to as many as 24,000, with perhaps 80,000 possible in the future.

A new runway simulating an "assault landing zone" for large supply aircraft was built - aligned so planes would fly directly over the gravel mining site, as it turned out.

If houses eventually were built there - a typical scenario - residents might later object to the noise.

The military investigated other sites for the runway. But at Dover, Del., even more people lived nearby. Another potential location in South Carolina would have required about $1 million extra a month in fuel costs for the Air Force.

An additional $3.75 million is coming from Ocean County's open space trust fund, which generates about $12 million a year through a real estate tax.

Nearly a quarter of the land, 387 acres, is being transferred to Ocean County and "will remain in its natural forested state," said Freeholder John Bartlett.

"Anything we can buy around the base protects it from encroachment, which makes it that much more viable for the future," he said.

The new chunk of land connects Patriot's County Park and 380 more acres previously conserved by the county.

The final $1.125 million is coming from a conservation fund administered by the Pinelands Commission, which has the joint duties of protecting the unique ecosystem without stifling economic growth.

"Land preservation is the most powerful tool we have to protect the Pinelands," said commission spokesman Paul Leakan.

L. Stanton Hales Jr., program director of the Barnegat Bay Partnership, which is working to restore the bay, praised the work of the trust, saying it was "one of the real bright spots" in the region.

But he said the agreement was a compromise he hoped could be improved upon.

"In an ideal world, it would have been nice to have the money" to conserve all 1,800 acres, he said.

With the gravel-mining business still in operation and commercial development still undetermined, "our work is only partly done on that property," he said. "There's still an opportunity here."

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, praised the agreement. He said Jackson Township was "one of the areas we're really concerned with," given its fast growth and proximity to Barnegat Bay. "Whatever we can buy is something that doesn't get developed."

The trust's Cucci said that the deal, two years in the making, was one of the most complicated he had worked on, but that he wasn't surprised by that.

"New Jersey is in a race to protect its open space," he said. "What we're left with are the important properties that warrant conservation but require a concerted effort among many partners."

He acknowledged "we're not preserving every square inch" of the current 1,800-acre parcel "and guaranteeing that it be kept in its natural form. That would have cost a lot more money."

But, he said, "we're taking away the worst-case scenario."


Contact staff writer Sandy Bauers at 215-854-5147, sbauers@phillynews.com, or @sbauers on Twitter. Visit her blog at philly.com/greenspace.

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