The NJ municipalities of East Windsor, Hamilton and Robbinsville have filed suit against the State of New Jersey for the return of funds that were supposed to be used to replace trees destroyed by NJ Turnpike construction.
According to reports, $15 million set aside for replacing 268 acres of lost tree cover has been diverted by the state Dept. of Environmental Protection to keep state parks open instead. Another $1.6 million that was to be used along the Garden State Parkway widening project has also been diverted. In total, the Turnpike project involves clearing 449 acres of trees in seven towns. $13 million remains for reforestation, an amount the municipalities claim is far too small to cover the losses. (Reforesting one acre costs $61,200, according to the reforestation plan the NJ Turnpike Authority submitted to DEP.)
The replanting funds were among the measures promised to the municipalities in exchange for land to accommodate the massive widening of the NJ Turnpike, which will add 170 new lane miles to the roadway from interchange to 6 to 9. The redirection of funds clearly violates the spirit of the No Net Loss Reforestation Act, which says that trees removed from state land during construction should be replaced as close as possible to the original site. Whether it violates the letter of the law should be determined by the lawsuit.
Town officials now regret transferring the land needed for the widening. “After this episode, what mayor in his right mind would ever sign an agreement with the State or the Turnpike?” Robbinsville Mayor Dave Fried wrote in Politicker NJ. Aside from the lawsuit, the reallocation has prompted direct action by Mayor Fried (see picture), and has legislators weighing in and asking the Governor to intervene on behalf of the aggrieved municipalities.
The broken promise is another sorry chapter in the history of the Turnpike widening project, which has been poorly justified and promises little but induced traffic and more sprawl. The trees would have offered noise and pollution mitigation along the widened sections of the Turnpike. The net loss of trees is a blow to local residents, and threatens to deepen the adverse effect of the widening on greenhouse gas emissions, making it all the more difficult for the state to meet goals mandated by the Global Warming Response Act.
A state judge will hear the case on October 1.
Photo: Times of Trenton.