Delanco fights for river trails

In Delanco, NJ., the West Avenue Nature Trails. Here, a butterfly. APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer
In Delanco, NJ., the West Avenue Nature Trails. Here, a butterfly. APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer
Posted: May 13, 2012

Soon after workers finished creating scenic trails along the Delaware, Delanco’s town lawyer received surprising news: The state agency that usually champions such projects was seeking a court order to stop it.

The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, a vast agency that advocates for nature and open space, was fulfilling its less-popular duty of selecting places to deposit the river’s murky dredge spoils.

Delanco’s new park was a designated dump.

The river needs periodic dredging to improve navigation, and the DEP’s site selection for spoil deposits often leads to clashes with affected towns.

This month, the DEP’s argument was with Delanco, a roughly two-square-mile community that had dared, the agency said, to schedule a ribbon-cutting to open five trails on a 35-acre site known as the Dunes. Two years earlier, the DEP said, the town was warned that a 250,000-cubic-yard mound was planned for that area.

Superior Court Judge Karen L. Suter sided with the town and allowed the ribbon-cutting.

“Continuing to allow the area to be used for recreation will not create irreparable harm,” she said, but she agreed to hear more arguments in June.

“Clearly, there is a pressing need to keep the channel safe ... but this is a difficult situation because people don’t want dredge materials in their community,” said Larry Hajna, a DEP spokesman. He was not aware of any timetable for the dredging.

Pennsylvania’s DEP has the same duty when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredges its side of the river.

Four years ago, former Gloucester County Freeholder Director Stephen Sweeney, now the state’s Senate president, bragged about how the county took steps to prevent a longtime dredge site in Logan from again becoming a “pile of mud.” The county purchased the land and built a $20 million equestrian facility on the site.

More recently, a Bordentown Township island escaped becoming a dredge site when endangered bald eagles were seen nesting in the area. The DEP again had to look elsewhere.

“We’ve seen blue heron,” Delanco Mayor Marlene Jass said when asked about the wildlife at the newly opened West Avenue Nature Trails at the Dunes.

Unfortunately for Delanco, herons are not a protected species.

Jass said Delanco officials have gotten conflicting messages from the DEP. The agency approved the Dunes for open space and passive recreation and also issued a permit for composting on another part of the parcel.

“We didn’t expect to be in court, trust me,” she said.

Some of the trails, which were blanketed by white locust blossoms last week, lie beneath a canopy of 40-foot-tall trees and afford picturesque glimpses of the river below a ridge. Clusters of Monarch butterflies flitted around hikers as birds delivered a loud serenade.

“I’ve never heard so many birds before. They’re just extraordinary,” said Lauren Muzika, a college student from Beverly, as she emerged from the woods on a recent afternoon. “I also saw deer.”

“This is like a sanctuary,” Jass said.

The Army Corps dredges the river when shoals build on the bottom and create a potential hazard to vessels. The maintenance operation is separate from a controversial Delaware River deepening project, which will lower the riverbed 5 feet, to 45 feet, between Delaware and Philadelphia. So far, about 16 miles have been deepened, said Ed Voight, Army Corps spokesman.

The DEP and various environmental groups had sued to stop the deepening, saying the Army Corps did not conduct sufficient studies to show the dredge spoils in the industrialized part of the river were not contaminated and wouldn’t be a hazard to remove. A judge disagreed, and an appeal was pending.

Hajna said the maintenance dredging required similar studies. Two years ago, the DEP selected Delanco, Palmyra, Burlington Island, and Cinnaminson as possible dredge dump sites. Dredging later began in Palmyra, but no decision has been made about the other places.

Burlington City officials have asked the DEP to reconsider. Plans to create a historical theme park and campgrounds on the island would be hampered by a noisy dredging operation on its southern tip, officials say.

Meetings to negotiate the issue over the last year have been canceled several times.

In Delanco, the town officials are fighting back. The DEP says it owns most of the Dunes because it is tidelands — an area over which the river has flowed or does flow. But Jass says the land was legally transferred to Delanco in the 1940s when a bankrupt developer failed to pay taxes.

Township Solicitor Douglas Heinold said the DEP’s claim of ownership was “a cloud to our title, but it’s never been resolved.” He said the town informed the DEP in June 2010 that it was the legal owner of the land and that the state “does not have the right or permission to place dredge spoils on the township’s property.”

About three decades ago, the Dunes was used as a dredge dump site. But when that stopped, in the ’80s, it sprouted a forest.

Public Works Superintendent John Fenimore remembers, when he was a kid, watching the heavy equipment dig up the riverbed and shoot it through pipes onto the Dunes. “We would hope to see if they would blow fish out,” he said, “but we never got that lucky.”

Now, Fenimore, who maintains the trails, appreciates how nature has reclaimed the land. “It’s pretty back here,” he said, “and to dump dredge spoils here would ruin it.”

Suter will hear arguments next month on the “ownership dispute.”

Heinold said the Dunes’ future was at stake. If the DEP has its way, he said, the forested land would be cleared and the spoils pumped in, left to drain, and then trucked out so that more spoils could be brought in.

The DEP, he said, “wants to keep it looking as a moonscape, as opposed to a landscape.”

Contact Jan Hefler at 856-779-3224 or jhefler@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @JanHefler. Read her blog on philly.com/BurlcoBuzz.

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