CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE — A $125 million project eliminating three traffic lights on the Garden State Parkway would lead to filling in wetlands and destroying 26 acres of trees, environmental opponents say.
The opponents want a public comment period on the plan extended, saying some of the details just became apparent.
Plans to build temporary roads to divert traffic during the three-year project came out at a public hearing last week. Local resident Russell Down, who lives next to the parkway, said those details emerged on the very day the public comment period under the Coastal Area Facility Review Act permit ended.
“This hearing served as first notice to the public that the project as planned is to require the destruction of 26 acres of trees. The timing, in the last hours of the last day for public comment and input for the CAFRA permit application, is manipulative to the point of being a travesty of due process,” Down said.
The project is fully funded and would result in 20-foot-high bridges constructed at all three intersections with ramp connections to the parkway. There would be traffic lights on the ramps at Stone Harbor Boulevard and Crest Haven Road and stop signs on the Shell Bay Avenue ramps. Parkway traffic would go on the bridges while local traffic on the three roads would go under them.
Plans to replace traffic signals at Stone Harbor Boulevard, Crest Haven Road and Shellbay Avenue in Middle Township, the only three located along the entire length of the 172-mile long parkway, have been talked about since 1961.
Ruth Fisher, an environmental activist from Dennis Township, said she wants more details and is especially concerned about trees and wildlife that lives in the wooded areas, a buffer to the salt marshes.
“How many trees will be destroyed? What kind of trees? What ages? There may be ancient trees in there that will be affected. It’s a more destructive project than anybody realized and there’s very little publicity,” Fisher said.
Down has asked the state Department of Environmental Protection to extend the CAFRA public comment period to Dec. 4.
Bob Considine, a spokesman for the DEP, on Friday said the CAFRA comment period ended on Oct. 4, the day of last week’s meeting, and “as of now there are no plans to extend it.”
Considine noted that the meeting held last Thursday had nothing to do with CAFRA or the DEP. The New Jersey Turnpike Authority hosted the hearing to conform to an executive order dating back to Gov. Thomas Kean requiring toll authorities to be more responsive to the public, as well as to the state’s No Net Loss Reforestation Act.
Considine, however, said the DEP’s Division of Parks and Forestry administers the reforestation law and would work with the authority on this issue.
Donald Chappa, an engineer with the New Jersey Turnpike Authority, said that while 26 acres of trees would be destroyed, partly because of the diversionary roads constructed along the northbound side of the parkway,19 acres would be replanted later.
Pavement and fill put in wetlands for the temporary roads would be removed later, Chappa said. The authority would also contribute $65,000 an acre to the DEP for each acre of trees not replaced, he said.
Thomas Feeney, a spokesman for the authority, said the public comment period on the deforestation-reforestation plan does not expire until Dec. 4. The authority would respond to all comments on this issue and they would then be sent to the DEP to review before its decision is made on the forestry plan, he said.
Documents on the project’s impact on wetlands was released to the public in 2011, Feeney said, and the authority has had eight public hearings on plans to eliminate the traffic signals at interchanges 9, 10, and 11.
“It’s not our call whether to extend the CAFRA comment period or hold a CAFRA public hearing, but there has been ample opportunity for members of the public to comment on these plans, and there doesn’t seem to be any good reason to further delay a project the community has been waiting on for 20 years,” Feeney said.
“The public needs a little more time for education and discussion. The big surprise is the whole new bypass lane. The whole meeting was an attempt to end run CAFRA,” Down said.
Fisher said it’s not too late to stop the project. She recalled fighting a plan almost four decades ago to site a floating nuclear power plant off Atlantic City that was stopped at the last minute.
“They drafted plans. The companies, PSE&G and Atlantic Electric, supported it. The newspapers wrote about it as if it was a done deal. It seemed unstoppable. It’s not there today,” Fisher said.
The Cape May County Board of Chosen Freeholders and the Middle Township Committee support the parkway project.
About 100 people at last week’s meeting mostly supported the project, though some wanted changes such as adding sound barriers or moving access ramps away from residential streets.
Both Down and Fisher have written to the DEP and to Gov. Chris Christie. And Down has requested traffic fatality statistics for several routes to the shore, saying he questions whether more lives could be saved by making transportation improvements to Route 47 and Route 347.
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