The Pinelands Commission narrowly voted at its Friday morning meeting against a state plan to clear cut about 16 acres of mature trees blocking views from the Bass River State Forest fire tower.
It’s believed to be the first time the commissioners have gone against a staff recommendation and not approved a public development project requested by another state agency.
The issue will now go to the Office of Administrative Law, which will determine after a hearing whether the clear cutting can go forward and whether its scope should be changed.
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“The commission is now in an adversarial position to its staff. I think we may wind up with the DEP and commission staff represented jointly, with the commission represented by its own (state lawyer),” said the commission’s senior counselor, Stacey Roth.
Roth said commissioners would then be unable to use the staff for the litigation.
“In my experience here, this has never happened before. It’s a new road for everyone,” Roth said.
The Department of Environmental Protection’s Forest Fire Service had asked to remove trees blocking the view of fire spotters from the top of the aging, 80-foot fire tower located just west of the Garden State Parkway on East Greenbush Road (Route 654) in Bass River Township.
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New Jersey Forest Service Chief Todd Wyckoff has said the only trees to be cut are in plantations planted in the early 20th century with the intention of harvesting them. They would be replaced with native tree species that would not grow as tall.
Commission staff recommended approval, saying the plan met the requirements of its Comprehensive Management Plan.
But the plan was opposed by many residents, by the Bass River Township governing body and by Mayor Deborah Buzby Cope. They said it would destroy a historic forest planted by the Civilian Conservation Corps, disrupt habitat and create an eyesore residents would have to live with for years.
“If they had voted to approve, we would have filed our own appeal to Superior Court to get it before an administrative law judge,” resident Rose Sweeney said after the meeting. She is part of a group who oppose the clear-cutting plan.
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Sweeney said even if the OAL hearing just delays the cutting, she’s hopeful it will give the DEP time to explore other options, such as software and cameras used in other states.
If the OAL hearing doesn’t include a place for public comment, “both sides of the commission will technically have their own attorney ... and could call members of the community as witnesses,” Sweeney said.
She said an online petition against the clear-cutting has 400 signatures and she expects that number to grow.
The Forest Fire Service has said fire spotters’ views are blocked on three sides by nearby pines that have grown to the tower’s height.
The tower oversees an area of about 50,000 residents — mostly to the east — in places such as Little Egg Harbor Township, Tuckerton, Bass River and Eagleswood Township.
Commissioner Mark Lohbauer said the commission did not have enough information about alternatives to clear cutting, such as use of cameras, to approve the project. Commissioner Edward Lloyd said he thinks the clear cutting violates the Comprehensive Management Plan.
The vote was six to approve, with one no and four abstentions, but it needed eight yes votes to pass.
The state has looked into replacing the tower, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1937, with a 120-foot structure. Some of the 20 other towers in the state are 100 feet or more. But the state got one quote saying it would cost about $500,000, officials have said.
Wyckoff has said the state would go out to bid for the cutting, which he expects to be done for the paper or chipped-wood trade. It shouldn’t cost taxpayers anything but probably won’t bring in much income either, he has said.
The area has seen some bad fires, including nine that have burned 30,100 acres since 1999, according to the state. Nearby fires in 1936 and 1977 each killed firefighters, who are honored with a memorial near the tower.
Forest Fire Service Chief Greg McLaughlin has said he expects the tower to continue being used for the next five to 10 years.
A 4-acre cutting project was done about 20 years ago, and also generated controversy, he said.