EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP - When Atlantic County replaces a long-closed bridge this summer, the project will be helped along by a decision several years ago to buy and set aside property that would be turned into wetlands.

The result will make the county the first local government in New Jersey, Pennsylvania or Delaware to create its own wetlands to offset damage elsewhere within its borders.

Construction crews in recent weeks have set up orange fences and a gravel roadway at a parcel along Lakes Creek in Egg Harbor Township. On Tuesday, a pair of front-end loaders sat still, adjacent to mounds of freshly scooped dirt.

Crews are working this summer to create the Lakes Creek Wetland Mitigation Bank by lowering the height of the former agricultural field and digging a channel to nearby Lakes Creek.

They are turning what was once a farmer's field into a tidal marsh, replacing wetlands that the county is using as it rebuilds the nearby Somers Point-Mays Landing Road Bridge over English Creek and upgrades two intersections.

When complete, much of the 37-acre tract along Lakes Creek near the intersection of Jeffers Landing and Mays Landing-Somers Point Road will be changed, fulfilling state and federal obligations to replace wetlands damaged by the construction elsewhere.

"We looked at 15 or so potential sites," said Robert B. Lindaw Jr., a planner with Atlantic County. "This one was chosen because of its location. It was in close proximity to Lakes Creek. You need the water to create the saltwater and the wetlands."

The county is spending $1.4 million to create the wetlands bank. Once the digging is done, crews are expecting to plant bushes and trees. The county has also agreed to monitor and maintain the plantings for at least five years.

The Lakes Creek Wetland Mitigation Bank will create 7.4 credits, Lindaw said. The county plans to use 0.64 of those credits as part of the $3.5 million project to rebuild the Somers Point-Mays Landing Road Bridge this summer.

That bridge has been out of service since it was damaged by Tropical Storm Irene floodwaters in August 2011. The county had long planned to replace the 1914 structure. It is the fourth-oldest bridge in the county, evaluated as structurally deficient and rated just 17.2 out of 100 on the National Bridge Inventory.

The remaining credits will be used to mitigate wetlands lost during the reconstruction of the Fire and Mill Road intersections and stored in reserve for future projects, county spokeswoman Linda Gilmore said.

Federal and state laws have long required developers, towns and counties to mitigate damage they cause to coastal wetlands. The issue is particularly acute in shore regions such as Atlantic County, with its miles of bayfront and tidal streams and rivers.

Builders have several options, including dealing with the issue at the construction site or by using a mitigation bank.

Companies, nonprofits and government groups make wetland mitigation banks by artificially creating or restoring wetlands, and then agreeing to maintain them for several years. Once created, federal regulators then grant these banks credits, based factors that include the number of acres of wetlands.

Once active, companies and nonprofits can turn around and sell these lucrative credits to developers. Credit prices vary widely, based on the location and type of wetlands.

A credit can cost as little as $5,800 in a Nature Conservancy holding in Mississippi, according to a tracking website operated by M. Siobhan Fennessy, an associate biology professor at Kenyon College, to as much as $150,000 at the Vivian Chimento Wetland Mitigation Bank in Little Silver, Monmouth County.

Credit banks have grown in popularity in recent years, as federal regulators embraced them as a creative and effective way to preserve wetlands.

There were at least 1,800 acres similarly preserved in New Jersey as of January 2013, according to the Wetlands Mitigation Council of New Jersey. The largest by far is a 1,073-acre property in Vineland and in adjacent Pittsgrove Township, Salem County, owned by the Nature Conservancy.

The other local holding is the Stipson's Island Bank, a 35-acre tract owned by the Evergreen Environmental LLC in Dennis Township. Environmental engineers founded that company in 2006, and it now operates banks in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia. Its three New Jersey holdings alone account for 286 acres.

All of New Jersey's wetlands banks are owned either by nonprofits or private groups, making Atlantic County's the first local government to establish its own.

Michael Hayduk, Sr. staff biologist for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Philadelphia District, said in a statement, "Atlantic County's approach to providing mitigation now for future impacts is progressive and efficient."

Atlantic County brought the 37-acre parcel for $280,300 in October 2009, according to the deed. William S. and Ila T. Burman had owned the land, but after they died attorney Robert F. Garrett sold the land to the county as the estate's executor.

"What makes this unique is that wetland mitigation typically occurs on a per-project basis," Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson said in a statement. "But in developing a wetland bank, Atlantic County is able to group mitigations and create a better site for restoring lost wetland functions and do so in less time and at less cost."

Contact Derek Harper:

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