After publicly claiming that the massive tree-clearing along 34 miles of the Garden State Parkway has nothing to do with that roadway’s $900 million widening project, the New Jersey Turnpike Authority has admitted the projects go hand in hand but that it still hopes to avoid a required replacement of the felled trees.

The contract for the tree-clearing project, obtained by The Press of Atlantic City through the Open Public Records Act, describes the work as “advanced clearing for the Garden State Parkway Widening Milepost 30 to 64.5” and is referred to as such throughout the document.

Veronique Hakim, executive director of the Turnpike Authority, which maintains the 172-mile toll road, confirmed that the tree-clearing is being done in advance of a third lane being added in both directions between Atlantic and Ocean counties, a prime growth area. Hakim said the Turnpike Authority does not have enough funds to proceed with the next phase of the road project but that the tree-clearing is being done to enable the project to move forward once the funds are available. 

The tree-clearing, which is scheduled to continue until May 1, runs from milepost 30 in Somers Point to milepost 64.5 in Stafford Township.

Hakim admitted the tree-clearing was both routine maintenance and part of the widening project.

“As of right now, we do not have the ability (financially) to move forward with the widening,” she said. “But the trees were removed in a way that would enable us to move forward, if that funding becomes available.”

The state’s No Net Loss Reforestation Act requires a tree be replanted for every one felled during a construction project that is more than a half-acre in size, such as the Parkway widening. As an alternative to planting a tree, a builder also may put money in a fund devoted to buying and planting trees.

A tree for a tree

Environmentalists are accusing the Turnpike Authority of attempting to circumvent the reforestation act to save money.

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club, said he believes the parkway’s operators are trying to avoid the state’s requirement that trees felled for construction projects be replaced on a one-for-one basis. Tittel and other environmentalists say the authority is playing word games with the tree-cutting project by calling parts of it “routine maintenance” and other parts “firebreaks.” If the tree-cutting is classified as something other than a widening project, the authority could legally avoid replacing trees or could be forced to pay less for the trees removed.

“This is not a maintenance project to remove a couple of dead trees,” Tittel said. “This is a clear-cutting of a 30-mile stretch of the parkway.”

Officials from the Turnpike Authority say they have lived up to their “no net loss” obligations and plan to continue doing so. But they believe the tree-cutting project may be eligible for exemption since the state’s Division of Parks and Forestry has said the cut trees could classify as a firebreak for the pinelands.

The authority has submitted a plan to the state Department of Environmental Protection to mitigate the loss of wetlands and trees, although it did so only after the clearing work had begun, a breach of etiquette if not of the regulatory process.

“Admittedly, this is kind of putting the cart in front of the horse. The (tree removal) probably shouldn’t have started until a plan was in place. But we will hold them to the exact same standards as we would have if the plan was in place since day one,” DEP Deputy Commissioner Irene Kropp said.

The authority’s contract for the tree removal is with The Delaney Group Inc., which is based in New York. 

The August 2010 advertisement for the contract said the project includes the maintenance of 251 acres of clear zone at an estimated cost of $10 million to $15 million. The Delaney Group, the only out-of-state contractor to bid on the project, won with a proposal of $5.9 million that was significantly less than the second-lowest bid of $9.2 million by Bridgeton-based South State Inc.

The contract also laid out time frames for Delaney to complete various phases of the project and established a schedule for damages to be paid if a part of the contract or the overall contract were not finished on time. If the entire project is not substantially completed by May 1, the group could be charged $20,000 a day.

A separate project

In recent months, the Turnpike Authority has repeatedly said the clearing is not part of the $900 million parkway widening project that, when completed, will widen the roadway between mileposts 80 in Toms River and 30 in Somers Point, but rather a maintenance program designed to keep drivers safe and the roadway clear of debris.

Tom Feeney, a spokesman for the Turnpike Authority, told The Press in February that “originally, this was billed as clear zone maintenance for this entire stretch and, also, the northern part was going to be worked into the removal for the widening project. But we’re still in the planning process for the next phase of the widening, and any actual work is so far away that some of the trees will probably have started to grow back by the time work begins on the widening.”

On March 17, Kropp told The Press that the Turnpike Authority submitted a reforestation or payment plan in February for the section of the project that stretches between mileposts 30 and 64.5, but that the plan still had not been reviewed at that time.

DEP spokesman Larry Hajna said officials from the DEP and the Turnpike Authority met Tuesday to discuss what the Turnpike Authority needs to do to mitigate the loss of trees.

“I would call the meeting productive,” Hajna said. “We discussed the details of what they needed to do. We went over the site inspections that we did, and we planned follow-up meetings that will take place in the near future. And they said they will fully cooperate with us on this.”

Hajna said exact costs or reforestation requirements pertaining to the tree clearing were not final.

Kropp said she did not think a sister agency, such as the Turnpike Authority, would attempt to circumvent its responsibilities. But she said the no-net-loss requirements can be unclear, which could be why there is so much debate over the Turnpike Authority’s obligation.

Hakim said her agency has been upfront about the project and how it was being described, saying that public hearings and advertisements have made the process open and transparent. A public hearing to discuss the project was advertised and then held Sept. 29 in Galloway Township.

Bringing trees back

The size of the undertaking is reflected in both the $6 million price tag to clear the trees and in the visual impact of the razed oak, maple, cedar and pine trees. The scene has become familiar to motorists: heavy machinery, specially fitted timber-cutting machines and dump trucks picking their way through long swaths of denuded ground and fallen timber. Piles of woodchips tower more than 20 feet high.

Yet despite the scope of the project, the authority’s environmental impact study, submitted in 2006, describes the work as relatively minor.

“The proposed project will require minor disturbances of vegetated areas. ... In total, 155.58 acres of existing vegetated area will be cleared, of which 88.84 acres will be converted to paved area,” the report reads.

The report states that a majority of the permanent impact will be to the plant and animal habitat in the project area, including those of threatened and endangered species, such as bald eagles, ospreys and Pine Barrens tree frogs. But it states that the loss of habitat is not expected to affect the ability of existing species to successfully breed, forage and hibernate because there is plenty of available habitat space nearby.

Still, many area residents are angry with the project’s scope.

“I think that they should remove the word ‘garden’ from the Garden State Parkway,” said Jim Conover, 45, of Egg Harbor Township. “It looks like some kind of bomb went off or a tsunami hit. … Everything is obliterated. It’s deplorable.”

Feeney said the Turnpike Authority appropriated $1 million in June to dedicate toward paying the DEP for the trees cut down for the project. But Hakim said the Turnpike Authority still hopes to mitigate some of its expenses if the DEP agrees that the project counted as “work in lieu of payment” — meaning the creation of a firebreak by cutting trees has value that reduces the authority’s obligation to pay for new trees.

Even though the DEP has not finalized what the Turnpike Authority’s reforestation or repayment requirements will be, Feeney said the agency is “ready to live up to whatever our obligations will be.”

Tittel said he doubted that.

“I think that Jon Lovitz could play them in a movie,” Tittel said, referencing the Saturday Night Live character Tommy Flanagan, the pathological liar, played by Lovitz during the 1980s. “They’re spinning quicker than a top, and what they’re saying doesn’t pass the straight-face test.”

Meanwhile, environmentalists have focused their concerns on the parkway’s landscape, which they claim has been destroyed.

“Not only does it look terrible, they are destroying the forest along there,” Tittel said. “It undermines tourism, it undermines the environment and it creates flooding and environmental problems. That’s why laws were passed to prevent these types of things from happening.”

Carleton Montgomery, director of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, said the large-scale tree clearing has hurt the parkway’s character.

“The concept of a parkway is to provide a scenic drive, and much of the Garden State Parkway has always been very scenic. It also forms the edge of a vast stretch of pinelands forest and is a barrier to the movement of many terrestrial creatures,” Montgomery said. “We have objected to the widening since the beginning … and we were largely ignored at all levels of state government.”

Pete Dunne, chief communications officer for the New Jersey Audubon Society, said there are some positives that could come from the clearing.

“This is probably a give-and-take for the environment,” Dunne said. “Millions of birds are killed by automobiles every year. … Trimming the vegetation back from along the highway will probably reduce the number of bird strikes.”

But Conover, a real estate consultant, contrasted the project to the hoops that private residents and businesses are made to jump through by the state and local governments for even the smallest details of a construction project.

“I guess it boils down to the government running amok with no accountability. This is a project with a massive environmental impact, it’s the clear-cutting of entire areas, but they’re calling it minor,” he said. “It’s just one other thing that leads to the perception of how corrupt and inept the people running things are.”

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