Crowd debate Wharton roads, pipeline

Thursday’s Pinelands Commission meeting was held at the Trenton War Memorial to accommodate the expected large crowd interested in the issues of vehicles in Wharton State Forest and a New Jersey Natural Gas pipeline across the northern fringe of the Pinelands.

A funny thing happened at the Pinelands Commission meeting on Friday.

No one spoke.

During two public comment sessions, no one from the public spoke. It was something Paul Leakan had never witnessed before.

"And I have been coming to these meetings for 17 years." Leakan said.

For several years the meetings have been contentious, with many people speaking against -- and a few for -- proposals for two pipelines through parts of protected Pinelands areas.

The commission has now approved both pipelines, one for South Jersey Gas and one for New Jersey Natural Gas Co., and both are being challenged in court by environmental groups.

There was also a public hearing on Atlantic City Electric's proposal to replace 110 existing electric transmission lattice towers with monopoles in Estell Manor, and the townships of Buena Vista, Egg Harbor, Hamilton and Weymouth.

The commission will vote on the ACE proposal at a future meeting, said Leakan.

The commission approved plans for two projects in our region.

It is allowing the South Jersey Transportation Authority to widen a 3,500-linear-foot section of Amelia Earhart Boulevard from 68 feet to 80 feet; and a 1,900-foot section of Airport Road from 59 feet to 65 feet at Atlantic City International Airport in Egg Harbor Township.

It is also allowing Woodbine to create a recreation area on 46 acres that holds its elementary school.

In Woodbine, the conditions of approval include measures to protect redheaded woodpeckers, a Pinelands Area Threatened Animal Species possibly nesting in the area.

The Woodbine plan calls for 6,800 linear feet of 8-foot wide gravel walking trails and 2,700 linear feet of 8-foot wide paved bike trails. a playground/picnic area and a 56-vehicle parking lot.

Altogether 6 acres of forest will be removed, according to the commission. But tree clearing can only happen from Aug. 1 through April 1 of any year, when the woodpeckers are not nesting.

No redheaded woodpeckers were found on the site when Woodbine surveyed it, but they are known to be in the general vicinity and the Woodbine parcel is prefered habitat for them, being open forest with sparse undergrowth, according to the commission.

An ornithologist must also be hired to search the areas to be cleared for any nest cavity trees such as those used by red headed woodpeckers, and flag them for protection. Trails, playgrounds and parking lots must then be redesigned to not disturb those trees and the areas around them.

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