Sentinel: Access issue holding up church plan in Dismal Swamp

I t’s a battle that spans more than 20 years. Environmental activists have long spoken out against the proposed development of the 14- acre Visco tract, off Alexis Lane, Edison, where single-family homes were once proposed. The Visco family, which bought the property in 1983, has sought to develop the site since 1989, encountering objections mainly because the site is located in the Dismal Swamp wildlife sanctuary. Currently on the table is a proposal for a 4,324- square-foot building to be used as a Jehovah’s Witness center. The development would use 3 acres of the property. The Visco family sold the rest of the land to Middlesex County as open space.

Activists want the Visco tract to remain undeveloped, arguing that construction there would cut away “pristine forests,” pave over environmentally sensitive wetlands, and destroy an important part of the Dismal Swamp wildlife area. The Edison Planning Board voted last year to approve the subdivision of the Visco property, subject to several conditions, including that the owner apply to the state to release property from the open space inventory for use as a roadway. Such access to the proposed development has become a key issue because the property is landlocked. The Jehovah’s Witness organization would have to build an access road leading toAlexis Lane, cutting through land that has been preserved with Green Acres funding.

In October, the Edison Township Coun- cil initially voted against a resolution to allow the developer to seek state Green Acres approval to use land for the road, but reversed its decision soon after. The township, meanwhile, is seeking state approval to amend its Recreation and Open Space Inventory (ROSI). One-tenth of an acre would be removed from the ROSI in connection with the proposed extension of Alexis Drive. In the near future, the council will hold a public hearing on the ROSI amendment.

According to the applicant, when Visco purchased the property from the township in 1983, the only means of access to it was by way of Tyler Road, an unimproved “paper street.” Several years later, the township vacated Tyler Road at the request of builder Edison Tyler Estates, acknowledging that Visco’s property would be landlocked and therefore rendered useless unless alternate access was provided. Edison Tyler Estates was thus required to build Alexis Lane near the township’s property.

Former Councilwoman Jane Tousman, a strong advocate against development of the property, said she does not have a problem with the plan for a Jehovah’s Witness center, but she simply does not want it built in the Dismal Swamp area.

In the mid-1990s, Tousman formed a group called Save Our Swamps, which saved approximately 800 acres of Dismal Swamp after a six-year court battle.

According to the group’s website, the Dismal Swamp Conservation Area, dubbed “the everglades of Central Jersey,” spans 1,240 acres in Edison, Metuchen and South Plainfield. It serves as a natural oasis, with federal priority wetlands. It is home to over 175 species of birds and two dozen species of mammals, amphibians and reptiles, as well as a dozen threatened and endangered species, such as the American bittern, bald eagle and spotted turtle, according to the website. The Dismal Swamp also provides natural flood control, while its forests produce oxygen and its wetlands clean and purify water.

“Our mission is to protect and preserve all remaining land in the Dismal Swamp Conservation Area for the benefit of Middlesex County families and endangered wildlife,” the website states.

Robert Spiegel, executive director of the Edison Wetlands Association, has called on Edison Mayor Antonia Ricigliano and the Township Council to find a suitable property to swap for the land.


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