Environmental activists and residents came out in numbers Jan. 11 to hear the much-anticipated decision regarding a Dismal Swamp land-use battle that has spanned two decades.
The Edison Township Council, having deliberated the matter in closed session on Jan. 9, voted 5-1 at its Jan. 11 regular meeting in favor of a resolution that could pave the way for a driveway to be built providing access to the Visco tract, where a Jehovah’s Witness center is proposed. The council’s action memorializes its request for final Green Acres approval of an amendment to the township’s Recreation Open Space Inventory (ROSI). The driveway would be built in the Dismal Swamp Conservation Area, leading to the landlocked 14-acre Visco tract, off Alexis Lane.
Councilman Wayne Mascola cast the lone vote against the approval. Councilman Robert Diehl was not present. TheVisco family, which bought the property in 1983, has sought to develop the site since 1989, encountering objections mainly because the site is located within 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 donated by the Visco family. The rest of the land has been sold to Middlesex County for preservation as open space.
Council President Robert Karabinchak said the council had until Jan. 14 to make a decision, and that its members looked at all the evidence during the Jan. 9 closed session. Now, he said, the decision is in the hands of the N.J. Department of Environmental Protection, which will make the final determination on the proposal.
The council’s vote brought an outcry from activists and area residents.
“Edison is setting a horrible precedent in New Jersey,” said Jill Weislo of the Edison Wetlands Association (EWA). “I hope in the future we can avoid problems like the Visco problem, where we give away land to developers.”
Robert Spiegel, president of the EWA, said the township lacks leadership, and with decisions like this one, Edison will not be taken seriously anymore.
“Edison was one of the first townships to sign the Dismal Swamp Preservation Act to protect the Dismal Swamp Conservation Area,” he said. “And the first act they do is to give away protected land.”
According to the EWA website, the 1,240- acre Dismal Swamp Conservation Area is the largest natural area remaining in northern Middlesex County, spanning portions of Edison, Metuchen and South Plainfield.
ctivists 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. They have held rallies before council meetings to emphasize their dissent against development on the site.
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 DEP 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 GreenAcres funding.
In October, the Edison Township Council initially voted against a resolution to allow the developer to seek Green Acres approval to use land for the road, but reversed its decision soon after. The township, meanwhile, is requesting state approval to amend its Recreation Open Space Inventory. 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 on Nov. 3 heard equally passionate testimony from the environmental activists and residents as well as members of the West Edison and South Edison Jehovah’s Witness congregations during a court-mandated public hearing.
Some activists last week accused council members of holding a backroom meeting and making their decision in private.
“I feel like it’s a gag order on the residents,” said Jane Tousman, a Raritan Valley conservation adviser and New Jersey Sierra Club national delegate, who has been a strong advocate against development of the property.
Township Attorney Karl Kemm stressed that there had been no discussion in closed session regarding how members were going to vote.
“No decision was made, except in public,” he said, reiterating the point several times.
Stella Helen Lai, who has lived on Alexis Lane for 18 years, said she didn’t understand how the council voted in favor of the ROSI amendment after it received so much dissent for the proposal in the form of letters and public comments from residents and environmental groups.
At the meeting in November, the congregants of the Jehovah’s Witnesses center said they appreciate the passion of the environmental activists; however, they said they hoped the council’s decision would be based on the facts and the laws that have been presented, rather than “fear mongering” and misleading information.
Howard Dickson, a congregant of the church, said the building will be in the uplands, not within the wetlands area.
William Lund, engineer for the Jehovah’s Witnesses center application, said the DEP would not allow development on priority wetlands, and there must be a 50-foot separation from the swamp.
The church will house two of the Jehovah’s Witnesses congregations, as the Edison West and Edison South groups have outgrown their space on Central Avenue in Metuchen, Dickson said.
Attorney Stephen Barcan of the Wilentz, Goldman & Spitzer law firm in Woodbridge, representing the Jehovah’s Witnesses, has explained that Dolores Visco had been a congregant and wanted to give the land to the church. He said the site is zoned for the proposal and no other development can go on the site except a church.