Development crashing headlong into Barnegat Bay watershed

By Janet Tauro

The Barnegat Bay watershed is alive. Within the watershed is the World Biosphere Pinelands, containing the headwaters of the Toms and Metedeconk rivers, and the Kirkwood-Cohansey aquifer, which supplies the drinking water for more than one million residents at the Jersey shore.

Amidst a plethora of wildlife and plant species lies the natural world’s answer to man-made problems that plague us today: flooding, contaminated drinking water and jeopardized fisheries to name a few.

The Barnegat Bay watershed encompasses 600 square miles and, according to a University of Delaware report, provides about $4 billion to the economy in jobs, tourism and wages.  Residents and tourists flock to the bay for recreation and natural beauty.

The watershed, under siege from over-development, is where the endangered pine snake and barred owl nest.

While not endangered, but still precious, are hundreds of others that contribute to a thriving ecosystem, including the red spotted purple butterfly, red squirrel and yellow billed cuckoo bird.

Every inhabitant has a role in a native forest, which in turn provides for us; flood control, soil conservation, filtration of pollutants from drinking water, as well as the peace of mind and uplift of spirit that a stretch of undeveloped land can foster.

Crashing headlong into this thriving watershed are a number of large developments in Jackson Township, some of which have been approved in past years and others still up for discussion, that in the near future would bring more than 5,000 new residences and more than three million square feet of commercial development.

This does not include the massive $500 million Adventure Crossing project on Route 537 in Jackson, at the border of Millstone Township, which is spread over 300 acres.

Adventure Crossing will include a sprawling sports and entertainment complex as well as two hotels, a medical research facility, retail space, apartments, fast food restaurants, and a gas station and convenience store. More than 200 acres have already been clear-cut.

Yet to be approved is phase two of the Adventure Crossing project that will clear-cut 73 acres to make room for more than one million square feet of warehouse space.

Two massive warehouses – 14 acres and 9 acres each – will have more than 400 truck bays and surrounding paved parking lot surfaces. Runoff will drain to the Toms River and to Crosswicks Creek.

Jackson’s mayor hails the Adventure Crossing project as the “future” of Jackson Township, bringing jobs and tax revenues.

Others, including grassroots and environmental groups, view it as an abomination to the forest and a threat to drinking water and the well-being of those living downstream from the project.

The developer has offered various offsets and plantings to compensate for the clear-cutting. No amount of cosmetic landscaping, however, can make up for loss of a mature forest and the benefits of a thriving wetlands and woodlands complex to control flooding and filter contaminants from groundwater.

As we witness the decimation of forests, woodlands and open space statewide, current New Jersey land use rules allow developers to compromise, agreeing not to do something in return for doing a good deed nearby. This amounts to remediation in exchange for decimation.

The various Jackson proposals are being evaluated by the Jackson Planning Board separately and not in aggregate. In the absence of a regional watershed plan, cumulative effects, including to downstream water bodies, are not being weighed.

What happens in Jackson does not stay in Jackson and will affect communities downstream and the Barnegat Bay watershed.

It is time for the Ocean County Board of County Commissioners (formerly the Ocean County freeholders) through the Natural Lands Trust to effort to preserve the 73-plus acres to be felled for warehouses.

The trust was enacted in 1997 with the intent to preserve open space in perpetuity.

If this pivotal tract of land is destroyed, we might one day have to explain to our grandchildren why they can only hear stories and see internet images about what it was once like to swim, fish, or just float the day away in a bygone, once very alive Barnegat Bay.

Janet Tauro is the New Jersey board chair of Clean Water Action, which has more than 150,000 members and 75 member organizations statewide. The chapter is part of the national Clean Water Action, which has more than one million members. The organization was founded in 1972 and was instrumental in the passage of the Clean Water Act.