$32 million balancing act Meadowlands Commission sets economic agenda, environmental goals
by Nicholas J. Zitelli Reporter staff writer
Dec 26, 2004 | 780 views | 0 0 comments | 11 11 recommendations | email to a friend | print
An ambitious agenda lies ahead for the future of the murky waters that lay between the Hackensack and Hudson Rivers. The wetlands, known by most residents in northern New Jersey as the Meadowlands, are home to more than just the sports teams at the athletic complex.

The ecosystem that is the Meadowlands is a combination of fresh and salt-water tributaries that create a unique habitat for over 28 endangered or threatened species of wildlife and seven endangered plants.

However, the fragile Meadowlands area was once an ecological disaster. Garbage landfills, water pollution, and unstable ground became trademark characteristics of the wetlands, forcing many of the inhabitants to find new homes - and that included prospective developers.

That was over 30 years ago. Today the Meadowlands have a new direction and a commission geared towards the preservation and commercial development of the wetlands. And if that sounds a bit contradictory, to you then you're not alone.

In 1969, the then-Hackensack Meadowlands Development Commission was formed by an act of the state legislature, but was met with a weary eye from residents within the Meadowlands District. Balancing the preservation and restoration of a delicate ecosystem while managing the economics of smart growth is a dangerous agenda not readily undertaken by most government-formed agencies.

Yet somehow the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission - as it is now called - has managed to survive and make it to the point it is at today, a point where years of diligent house cleaning and careful planning has turned the once hopeless Meadowlands into a realm of unimagined potential and opportunity.

A brief history

As a state agency, the NJMC is essentially a zoning and planning department for a district that spans 32 square miles and is comprised of 14 municipalities throughout Hudson and Bergen Counties.

Secaucus is the only township in Hudson County that is completely enveloped by the Meadowlands District. Part of North Bergen is in it as well.

By state statute, the NJMC controls zoning for 89.4 percent of Secaucus, or 3,752 of the town's 4,196 acres.

In its early days, the Commission was designed to stop the use of the wetlands as a garbage dump and to curb landfill uses by nearby industry. In 1962, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared that "pollution of the waters has eliminated fish life" and that "there are no possibilities for extensive fish and wildlife developments." Since that time, the NJMC has slowly built the opposition needed to end dumping and the development of "offensive" manufacturing industries along the wetlands, giving the environment time to heal while a new plan for the Meadowlands was formulated.

'Smart growth'

On Dec. 7, the NJMC held the first-ever Meadowlands Economic Conference and Summit. After so many years of preservation and conservation efforts, the time is close at hand where "smart growth" initiatives can be incorporated into the grand scheme of things.

With a master plan for the entire district having gotten approval in January 2004, careful attention is now being paid to ways to balance the ongoing strengthening of the Meadowlands ecosystem while also accommodating the inevitable development that today's society dictates.

Being just five short miles from Manhattan, the Meadowlands is rapidly becoming desirable real estate for big developers. Now that the environment is much cleaner and development of the soggy land is more technologically feasible as well as politically allowable, some new trends towards smart growth are becoming more noticeable.

The onset of the recently approved Xanadu recreation/retail complex has set a new precedent that development within the district will be tolerated, but only within the stringent guidelines set forth by both the NJMC and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).

The 104-acre Xanadu site, slated for development at the sports complex near the Continental Airlines Arena, will house a hotel, office space, conference centers and a minor league baseball stadium.

Still, in order for the NJMC to pass the resolution authorizing the development in late August, the plan had to include the preservation of sensitive wetlands. Specifically, a tract of marsh stretching 587 acres along the west bank of the Hackensack River known as the Empire Tract had to be transferred from the Mills Corporation (one of the partner developers involved with the Xanadu project) to the Meadowlands Conservation Trust. The Trust was created in 1999 as a way of permanently preserving wetlands, waterways and open spaces in the Hackensack River Watershed.

Chairman of the NJMC and Director of the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs (DCA) Susan Bass Levin lauded the environmental effort at that time, calling it "a victory for our residents and our environment." However, Bass Levin was present this month at the economic summit as the keynote speaker, this time pushing the progressive agenda of the NJMC towards more of a development-oriented angle giving a speech entitled "A Commitment to Economic Growth."

Five-year plan

In her address at the Meadowlands Environment Center Auditorium, Levin charged the staff of the NJMC to develop a five-year fiscal plan to "ensure that NJMC economic initiatives, environmental endeavors and property tax relief become an ongoing commitment."

Levin said, "This is the first time we are joining together government, business and friends from the environmental community to intensely research and enhance the Meadowlands as a district economic engine to drive growth across the state."

Levin also announced a long-term fund that would support economic and environmental revitalization in the district that still houses industry and transportation infrastructure, including a new Secaucus Transfer station and the under-construction Turnpike interchange, "15X."

The Meadowlands Area Grants for Natural and Economic Transformation (MAGNET) were unveiled Wednesday at the NJMC's regular monthly board meeting. The plan earmarks potential revenue streams for ongoing property tax relief as well as environmental, economic and capital projects throughout the Meadowlands District.

The property tax relief clauses are included as incentives to lure businesses into the district.

To go along with the tax breaks, Levin stated the importance of current bills before the state legislature to establish a Transportation Planning District and Redevelopment Bank in the district. State Sen. Paul Sarlo (D- Wood-Ridge), who is the main sponsor of those bills, was present at the economic summit and spoke about the bills that afternoon.

With all of the recent talk surrounding development, some may wonder as to the sincerity of the suddenly less prominent environmental issues. When asked as about his opinion on the new economic initiatives, Executive Director of Hackensack Riverkeeper and environmental activist Bill Sheehan said he remained trustful of the NJMC's agenda, having himself made significant contributions to the master plan adopted earlier this year by the Commission.

"My organization and colleagues believe that there can be economic life after conservation. We can save all the wetlands and still have economic development," said Sheehan.

The truth is that in delicate cases such as this, where economics and conservation are both involved, each side needs the other in order to keep moving forward.

For instance, in the case of the Meadowlands, much of the preservation comes from clauses agreed to by developers who often buy land from municipalities in exchange for agreements to conserve open space, in this case, the wetlands.

"One hand really washes the other in many cases involving the wetlands," said Sheehan.

With the ensuing developments of the Xanadu and EnCap projects, the Conservation Trust will gain title to hundreds of acres of wetlands in the Meadowlands District. The Xanadu project, specifically, will end up turning over a 587-acre tract of wetlands to the Trust that will keep it preserved indefinitely.

Sheehan hopes these developments will actually send a message to private owners of wetland parcels who might have hopes of making significant financial gains through the rezoning and commercial development of the wetlands.

The $32M MAGNET plan

Passed Wednesday by a unanimous 7-0 vote of NJMC commissioners, Levin's MAGNET program is the first new initiative to provide actual funding for what has been coined the "Environmental and Economic Renaissance" of the Meadowlands.

"This program differs from our regular annual budget in that it provides a five-year financial plan for an agenda that goes well beyond that of a single year budget," said Bass Levin.

The five-year plan calls for $32 million to foster the continued revitalization of the Meadowlands. Part of that budget even comes from development partners of the Xanadu project, showing that economic development can literally pay off for environmental issues as well as economic issues.

MAGNET consists of four separate components: a $13.24 million Municipal Fund, a $13.24 million Environmental Fund, a $2.5 million Economic Development Fund and a $3.5 million Capital Improvement Fund. The Municipal Fund portion of the plan will provide the long sought-after tax relief through the Municipal Aid Program (MAP) already in place. In addition, the Environmental Fund provides for the continued protection and restoration of wetlands and open space.

"While it's important to develop plans to improve the district, those plans have no strength without the funding necessary to execute them," said NJMC Executive Director Robert Ceberio. "MAGNET makes sure our local environment and economy continue to flourish while providing important tax relief programs and quality of life improvements for residents."

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