EDISON – Peter J. Barnes III was instrumental in preserving hundreds of acres of land in the township including the approximately 660 acres of the Dismal Swamp Conservation Area.
With that, the Edison Township Council approved a resolution recommending the renaming of the Dismal Swamp Conservation Area (DSCA) to the Peter J. Barnes III Preservation Area at a meeting on March 22.
Middlesex County Commissioner Charles Tomaro said Barnes was the type of person who didn’t want the recognition for his accomplishments.
“He always [recognized] things for someone else whether renaming Paterniti Park [after the late Thomas “Doc” Paterniti, a long-time politician and longest-serving county Democratic municipal chairman], renaming Grove Avenue Park across from John P. (JP) Stevens High School after Mark Polansky, a 1974 graduate of JP Stevens, who served as a former NASA astronaut, and Hale Park [on New Talmadge Road and Alexis Lane] after a family that did a lot for the community,” he said.
Tomaro said the renaming of the DSCA after Barnes is fitting for what he had accomplished for the township.
Barnes suddenly passed away on Feb. 22. He was 64.
He served for 12 years on the Edison Township Council from 1996 to 2007. He served twice as council president.
In an interview in 2016 when Barnes was nominated to be a Superior Court judge, he said while on the council, he led efforts with Tomaro to protect open space.
Tomaro said the open space tax had to be put on the ballot three times before it finally passed on the third try.
“Peter hit the ground running, going door to door with [the late] Jane Tousman, Walt Stochel and Bob Takash and getting voters to vote on the open space tax,” he said, noting over the years through the open space tax and matching funds through the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection Green Acres program has allowed the township to purchase more properties than otherwise they would be able to.
Barnes served for seven years in the New Jersey General Assembly from 2007-13 before serving as a New Jersey state senator for three years. While a senator, he served as vice chairman of the Law and Public Safety Committee, a member of the Budget and Appropriations Committee and the State Government, Wagering, Tourism & Historic Preservation Committee.
In the Senate, Barnes sponsored significant bills, including the 2% budget cap for property tax relief; and the requirement of school districts, nonpublic schools and institutions of higher education to report allegations of sexual assault to law enforcement and institutions of higher education to post information on sexual assaults on their website and provide the information to prospective students.
He had also pushed legislation to establish a pilot program in Edison Township requiring the Attorney General to perform police internal affairs functions.
The Dismal Swamp is the largest contiguous wetlands in northern Middlesex County, the 1,250-acre DSCA is one of the last remaining viable wetland ecosystems in highly urbanized Central New Jersey. Known as the “Everglades of Central New Jersey,” the DSCA spans portions of Edison, Metuchen and South Plainfield, according to its website.
The DSCA is designated “priority wetlands” by both the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and provides much needed habitat for an estimated 175 species of birds, 25 species of mammals, and 25 species of amphibians and reptiles. The Dismal Swamp also acts as a floodplain for the Bound Brook and its headwaters. Its plant life absorbs excess water and helps to filter out impurities before they empty into the Raritan River Watershed, according to the website.
With the advocacy of Edison Wetlands Association (EWA), a non-profit organization, and local citizens, Edison preserved 270 acres of wetland and forest to create the Dismal Swamp Conservation Area. EWA purchased the Triple C Ranch, a 5.27-acre property in the heart of the Dismal Swamp, in 2001. Previously owned by Christopher C. Christensen, the ranch is one of the last remaining farms in northern Middlesex County.
Council President Robert Diehl said the renaming of the Dismal Swamp for Barnes is perfect.
“I don’t know if there would be a Dismal Swamp Commission without Peter Barnes,” he said. “The Dismal Swamp Commission was founded in [former Gov. Jon] Corzine’s era. We lost funding early on when Gov. [Chris] Christie became governor. The funding anticipated for the Dismal Swamp, we did not have.”
Barnes encouraged township officials to keep the Dismal Swamp Commission alive despite no funding.
“The Dismal Swamp is a beautiful jewel [in the township] and is something we need to preserve,” Diehl said.
Part of the plan is to provide an educational center at the preserve, which will be named after Jane Tousman, who was a member of the Dismal Swamp Commission and served as a long-time environmental activist in the township before she passed away in 2014.
Diehl said an educational center would also help bring revenue into the township with surrounding townships.
For more information visit njdismalswamp.org.