Might not be able to make fun of Jersey quite so much anymore . . . I'm kind of conflicted about that!
Ex-Trash Heap to Be Big Urban Park
By ANDREW JACOBS
ARLSTADT, N.J., May 11 — The Hackensack Meadowlands, once among the nation's best known trash heaps and a mosquito-infested symbol of environmental degradation, is poised to become something that once would have seemed unimaginable: a watery ecological preserve that would become the region's largest urban park.
Three months after developers agreed to abandon plans for a shopping center in the heart of the tidal basin that stretches for miles in either direction here, an unlikely coalition of business executives, environmental advocates and mayors has tentatively agreed to back a plan that would turn 8,400 acres of swamp, sewage and orphaned landfills into a sprawling green space 10 times the size of Central Park.
The site is two miles from the mouth of the Lincoln Tunnel.
In the past week, state officials, fortified with $8.4 million in acquisition funds, have begun contacting property owners to move forward with the next phase, the purchase of 700 acres for the refuge, which has unofficially been christened Meadowlands Preserve. The state already owns 3,400 acres that it plans to devote to the park, and officials say they have enough money to make the preserve a reality.
"A few years ago, if you had told anyone this collection of toxic dumps and marshes would one day become an environmental park, people would have thought you were crazy," said Representative Steve Rothman, a New Jersey Democrat who helped secure more than $4 million from Congress for the land purchases. Plans for the park, which have percolated for a decade, gained momentum in February, when a Virginia-based company abandoned its efforts to build a two-million-square-foot retail and entertainment center on wetlands here. The company, which spent years trying to win federal approval for the project, has agreed to shift the mall to the Meadowlands Sports Complex in East Rutherford and donate the 600-acre site to the state.
Extending from the edges of suburban Ridgefield south to the industrial flank of Kearny, the park will include playing fields, fishing piers, golf links and 35 miles of hiking trails, some of which will skirt above the riverine mud flats.
But just cobbling together patches of soupy earth does not make a wildlife refuge. Large swaths of the Meadowlands have long been cut off from the nourishing flow of the Atlantic, and environmental researchers are still trying to figure out how to clean up a landscape once dominated by scores of towering garbage dumps, many of which still leach brightly colored goo into surrounding waters.
Remediating the most damaged areas could cost hundreds of millions of dollars and take a decade or more to complete. Ecologists are unsure how the contamination from heavy metals will play out in the aquatic food chain, which includes more than 260 species of birds that feed, breed and nest in the area. "We're going to have to make the best of what in actuality is a very bad situation," said Bill Sheehan, director of Hackensack Riverkeeper, a group that serves as the Meadowlands's most dogged defender.
Still, as he steered a pontoon boat through the serpentine Saw Mill Creek last week, Mr. Sheehan excitedly pointed out the signs of a thriving habitat. Blue-wing teals and cormorants dipped and dove into the cider-colored waters and diamond-back terrapins sunned themselves on the mud flats. On many days, he said, the brackish Hackensack is now clean enough for swimming. As a boatload of old men cast lines for white perch and striped bass in a nearby cove, Mr. Sheehan and his co-pilot, Hugh Carola, argued over whether the waterfowl reeling overhead were white-fronted geese, a species rarely seen on the East Coast, or simply an escaped pair of barnyard geese.
Mr. Sheehan said that as he was growing up in Secaucus during the 1950's, very few species could survive the industrial effluent and burning trash that fouled the Meadowlands. "In 1995, when I started doing ecocruises, people laughed at me and said, `What are you going to look at, bits of floating garbage?' " he said. Since then, he has taken more than 16,000 people through the marshes, and on weekends, boaters flock to a newly created county park, Laurel Hill, to rent canoes by the hour.
A dozen kayaks are on the way, Mr. Sheehan said, and during the warmer months his office phones seldom stop ringing. "People are having birthday parties on the river," he said. "They're using the Meadowlands in ways they could never have imagined."
Local business leaders, who more recently viewed the Meadowlands as a place better suited to outlet centers and low-rise warehouses, have begun to see the possibilities of ecotourism. James Kirkos, president of the Meadowlands Regional Chamber of Commerce, said his group, which spent years butting heads with environmentalists, is planning a marketing effort to promote bird-watching and boating as well as the new golf courses. "We see great promise in it," he said of the park. "We're calling it Meadowlands Miracle Two."
EnCap, a Florida-based company, has already begun preliminary work on a billion dollar effort to transform seven abandoned landfills into four golf courses, a hotel and 2,000 apartments. As part of the project, the company will spend $300 million to seal in the ooze of contamination, which plagues many of the abandoned dumps.
Some local businesses are already trying to cash in on the lure of the place. Later this month, the Red Roof Inn in Secaucus will start putting ecocruise brochures in its rooms. Jim Mastrangelo, the general manager, wants all his employees to take a ride with Mr. Sheehan so they can better pitch the tours to guests. "I think folks will be pleasantly surprised to know they can take a canoe out on a marsh that sits in the shadow of the Empire State Building," he said.
Although the notion of a resuscitated Meadowlands began with the Clean Water Act of 1972 and slowly built over the decades, the biggest turnaround in its fortunes occurred last year, when Gov. James E. McGreevey appointed an environmentalist, Robert R. Ceberio, to lead the state agency that oversees zoning and development in the 30-square-mile Meadowlands district. (A few months earlier, the agency, previously known as the Hackensack Meadowlands Development Commission, changed its name to the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission to reflect its new mission.)
Once largely a vehicle for promoting economic development, which would have included the filling of 2,000 acres of wetlands, the commission has put together a new master plan that virtually eliminates wetlands destruction and steers all future development to brownfields and other upland parcels that have negligible ecological value. Business leaders like Mr. Kirkos said they have been cheered by the plan's growth component, which promises $5 billion in construction and 55,000 new jobs in the broader Meadowlands area outside the park.
He and others, however, want to make sure property owners are fairly compensated for land that is acquired for the park.
So far, the commission has been offering $10,200 per acre, an amount that Tom Bruinooge, a lawyer for several landowners, says is laughably low. He also objects to the use of eminent domain for seizing parcels from unwilling sellers. "I have yet to see how 50 acres of degraded wetland in a mythical park is a true public purpose," he said. Mr. Ceberio, the commission director, said disputed land values will be resolved by independent appraisals.
In some ways, Mr. Ceberio's career trajectory mirrors the changes in the Meadowlands, an area that once covered 21,000 acres. He first came to the agency in 1981, working in its solid waste division, when 3,000 trucks a day came to pour their wretched cargo over man-made hillocks.
One by one, the agency shut down the landfills and today only one dump, a repository for clean construction debris, remains in operation. The dumping fees there, which total about $8 million a year, help fund an environmental center and restored marsh that sit at the edge of an old dump.
"There's been a complete change in culture and philosophy here," Mr. Ceberio said, sitting in an office that provides a quintessential Meadowlands view: wading egrets, grass-covered landfills and the arc of the New Jersey Turnpike, all of it set against a hazy silhouette of the Manhattan skyline. "I can't tell you how exciting times are right now. It's a little scary."
Dennis Elwell, the mayor of Secaucus, agreed. Nearly enveloped by swampland, the town and its well-being have always been tied to the Meadowlands. Mr. Elwell's 88-year-old father can still recall the days before mosquito-eradication campaigns drained thousands of acres of marsh and a dam in Oradell choked off much of the Hackensack's freshwater flow. During the 1970's, the area received 11,000 tons of trash a day from New York City and towns across northern New Jersey. The stench was bad enough, but things became unbearable in the summer, when uncontrolled trash fires burned for weeks on end.
"Some nights," Mr. Elwell said, "you couldn't sit in your backyard it was so bad."