Sentinel: Two sides air views on Jehovah’s Witnesses plan

A land-use battle that has spanned two decades came to a head in Edison Township Council chambers last week.

The governing body held a court-mandated public hearing on Nov. 3 regarding its proposed amendment to Edison’s Recreation Open Space Inventory (ROSI). The amendment would allow a driveway to be built in the Dismal Swamp Conservation Area, providing access to the landlocked 14-acre Visco tract, off Alexis Lane. The Visco family has donated a portion of the tract to be used for a Planning Board approved Jehovah’s Witnesses church.

The Visco proposal has been met with staunch opposition from local environmentalists and residents, some of whom came early to the Nov. 3 meeting for a rally. Edison Wetlands Association (EWA) members, including the group’s president, Robert Spiegel, led the rally.

Protesters rally before the Nov. 3 public hearing on a proposal that would allow a driveway to built on a portion of the Dismal Swamp Conservation Area in Edison. “Say no to Visco,” the group chanted, waving signs that read, “Save our Swamp” and “Protect Edison’s Green Acres.” Spiegel yelled through a megaphone up toward the administration offices on the second and third floors of the building. “Save our parks, don’t pave our parks,” he yelled. “Do you want to be known as the town that likes development? … Find another solution and look somewhere else.”

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. The current proposal is for a 4,324-square-foot building to be used as a Jehovah’s Witnesses center, which would sit on 3 acres of the property. The Visco family would sell the rest of the land to Middlesex County for preservation 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 wildlife area .

The Edison Planning Board voted last year to approve a subdivision of the Visco property, subject to conditions, including that the owner apply to the state Department of Environmental Protection to release part of the property from the Green Acres open space inventory for use as a roadway.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses organization would build an access road that connects to Alexis Lane, cutting through land that has been preserved with Green Acres funding.

In October, the Edison Township Council 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 ROSI. One-tenth of an acre would be removed from the ROSI in connection with the proposed extension of Alexis Lane. 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, acknowledging that the Visco property would be landlocked and rendered useless unless alternate access was provided to Edison Tyler Estates, a then-planned residential development on the site.

The council heard equally passionate testimony from the environmental activists and residents as well as members of the West Edison and South Edison Jehovah’s Witnesses congregations.

At times, Township Attorney Karl Kemm and council Vice President

Robert Karabinchak, who chaired the meeting, reminded those in attendance that the hearing was just regarding the one-tenth of an acre proposed for removal from the ROSI, and not the proposed church.

“We may be talking about only one-tenth of an acre, but it’s important to note that wetlands create flood control in the area,” said Jill Weislo of the EWA. “One acre of wetlands can hold up to 330,000 gallons of water. The proposed property is 3 acres, which is 990,000 gallons of water that has to go someplace else, which will likely be in [residential] basements and even the church itself.”

Dana Patterson of EWA said people have to think that turtles and frogs nest in that one-tenth of an acre.

Spiegel told the council that it’s not right to say this is just a tenth of an acre.

“That’s equivalent to the tip of a finger or a toe,” he said. “These proposed 3 acres will be built on healthy wetlands in an already overstressed area of development.”

Residents who live in the vicinity of the property told the council that they were concerned about the potential for increased flooding and traffic.

“We are only two miles from [the Edison municipal complex] and it takes us 15 minutes to get here right now,” said Stella Helen Lai, who has lived on Alexis Lane for 18 years. “Now with more building over there, traffic will be even more.”

The congregants of the Jehovah’s Witnesses center said they appreciate the passion of the environmental activists; however, they said they hope the council’s decision is based on the facts and the laws that have been presented rather than “fear mongering” and misleading information.

“[Our proposal] is not within the wetlands, it is in the uplands,” said Howard Dickson, a congregant of the church. “Also, it was said we are building a sprawling religious center. That is not true. We are building a quaint little building, which will house two of our congregations.”

Dickson said they meet around 7 and 7:30 p.m., which does not conflict with rush-hour traffic.

William Lund, the engineer on the Jehovah’s Witnesses center application, said the proposed center would be built on the upland portion of the property.

“The NJDEP said we could not develop on priority wetlands, and we have to stay 50 feet away from the Dismal Swamp,” he said.

Dickson said the congregation, including the Edison West and Edison South groups, outgrew their space on Central Avenue in Metuchen.

“We actually have never had a home in our territory of Edison,” he said. “It is time for us to come home.”

Attorney Stephen Barcan of the Wilentz, Goldman & Spitzer law firm in Woodbridge, representing the Jehovah’s Witnesses center, told the council that Dolores Visco had been a congregant and wanted to give the land to the church.

“This site is zoned for a church,” he said, noting that no other development can go on the site except a church.

Barcan said the Green Acres hearing is the final step in what has been a long process. Residents who could not attend the hearing can submit written comments to the Township of Edison, 100MunicipalBlvd., Edison, NJ 08817, Attention: ROSI Amendment Request. Also, a copy of the comments should be sent to the State of New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, Green Acres Program, Mail Code 501-01, P.O. Box 420, Trenton, NJ 08625-0420.

On or after Nov. 18, the DEP may take formal action to approve the proposed ROSI amendment request.

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