As many of you know, last week Robbinsville, Hamilton and East Windsor took the N.J. 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.
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 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 right mind would ever sign an agreement with the State or the Turnpike?
When the DEP Chief of Staff tells legislators that the Turnpike is planting a few trees and she doesn’t “understand why the mayors are so upset,” it tells me one thing: You never have been a mayor.
You, Ms. Chief of Staff, have never sat in a constituent’s living room, and looked into the fearful eyes of a roomful of residents, people who are terrified that the bulldozers will destroy their summer barbeques and their property values. You have never been the person who told your town that the parkland transfer would be OK, because Robbinsville would receive $3 million to replant every tree.
If you had ever been that person, perhaps you would grasp how it feels 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. Except that no one told you. Why bother? After all, as your spokesman said, it was for “the greater good.”
That’s an $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’ve had to lay off firefighters and close on Fridays – about the need for “shared sacrifice.”
Or try being the one to ponder that 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 DEP to steal in the first place. That is fraud on a scale that is hard to contemplate.
Mayor Mironov, Mayor Bencivengo and I have already suffered the loss of energy receipts funds that by right belong to municipalities, which the state took “for the greater good.” We’ve seen the 2 percent property tax cap pass, but not the tool kit that will make it work.
Enough is enough.
If we mayors don’t stand up to the DEP on 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.