Preservation of 10,000 acres will impact West Milford

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:50

    The Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), through its Green Acres program, is trying to buy the development rights to 10,000 acres of land, 80 percent of which is in West Milford. The land, which is currently owned by the City of Newark, would complete a 35,000 acre area surrounding five reservoirs in the Pequannock watershed. The state has already bought easements to protect the other 25,000 acres. The impact to West Milford if this deal is agreed has two distinct perspectives n environmental and financial. Erin Phalon, spokesperson for the DEP said, "This purchase is being made to protect drinking water resources." But West Milford Township Administrator Richard Kunze said, "We are very concerned that this could result in an increased financial burden on our residents." . The price for the property deal has yet to be agreed as no appraisal of the land has yet been done but earlier this week a figure close to $11 million was reported. Property tax income to the township could be hit hard by the sale as the land value could become deflated due to the inability to develop the property. Kunze said "At this time we don't know what the effect will ultimately be since it would depend on the result of any future tax appeals filed by Newark." Kunze also reiterated the township's belief that the state should enact a water surcharge on the consumers of the water taken from the region in order to provide some tax relief. Ross Kushner, the Executive Director of the Pequannock River Coalition, an organization dedicated to preserving the Pequannock River welcomes the move by Green Acres but does have concern as to whether this particular purchase should be a priority. Kushner said "From an environmental standpoint this deal can benefit West Milford by protecting their water supply. Protecting thousands of acres in their community from development will safeguard groundwater quality and quantity." Kushner is however troubled by the concentration on purchasing Newark property by the DEP and by the money left to buy other lands from Green Acres funds. Kushner said "There are other lands across the Pequannock River Watershed and across the Highlands that are also important and more at risk. Eagle Ridge is a good example, as is the Idylease tract and a dozen others I could name. For that reason, this purchase does not seem to strike a proper balance." Kunze was equally critical of the focus on watershed land and of the possibility that the township's number one target for land purchase in conjunction with Green Acres — Eagle Ridge — may be undermined by this deal. Kunze said "We hope that this purchase by Green Acres would not adversely impact any possible funding for our Open Space priorities. I don't think it will per se … however given the moratorium and the Highland Act, one can question whether this purchase is really necessary at this point in time to preserve the land." At the DEP however Phalon deflected these criticisms and gave an assurance that the state has a broad outlook when purchasing land in the Highlands "The DEP through Green Acres is currently working to preserve 118 properties in the highlands. This purchase is not being done at the expense of the remainder of the Highlands and is just one of the pieces of land Green Acres is looking to purchase" The Newark Watershed Development and Conservation Corporation did not respond to requests for a comment.