The event was the last of three public hearings held throughout the Meadowlands district looking to explain the new master plan and to elicit comments and concerns from various people. Yet to anyone aware of the history of conflict over developing and passing a master plan for the Meadowlands, the public hearing became something surreal.
Perhaps few characters in a saga lasting more than 20 years were remarkably changed as New Jersey Meadowlands Commission Executive Director Bob Ceberio, who danced through the hearings with a dance card full of the names of his former environmental opponents, and each former enemy gushed with compliments over the change Ceberio had brought to the NJMC.
In a presentation thick with ironies, Ceberio laid out not only a new vision for managing the Meadowlands, a 32,000-acre watershed that includes portions of 14 towns in Hudson and Bergen County, including nearly all of Secaucus and parts of Jersey City and North Bergen. He also shared with the public a new philosophy, apologizing for previous notions and policies while promising to do better in the future.
In the past, we didn't always listen to what the public had to say, he told the room full of people who had come not only from Secaucus but from a variety of environmental activist groups. That has changed. We will listen to you and we will try to incorporate your ideas into what we do.
His speech rang with significant irony, because a decade ago in this same room, one of his predecessors, then-Executive Director Anthony Scardino, as part of a similar public hearing, told the crowd that the Meadowlands Commission knew better than the public what was best for the Meadowlands.
Scardino had also come to promote another more development-friendly master plan that had helped galvanize many in the environmental community and eventually led to the plan''s defeat and the creation of the current master plan. Ceberio served under Scardino during the time when SAMP was being promoted, and now presents the new plan and the new philosophy.
"The [new] master plan the Meadowlands Commission presented on Feb. 26, 2003 is the first plan [adopted] for the Meadowlands since 1970," Ceberio said, also noting that significant changes in perception of wetlands and significant legislation had been passed since then.
Out with the old plan, in with the new
The Meadowlands Commission called the Hackensack Meadowlands Development Commission until two years ago - was established in 1969 to manage various aspects of the Hackensack Watershed. This included the management of preservation, development and trash-dumping.
"Many people in this room remember the dump fires that used to burn across the river in Lyndhurst," Ceberio said. "The Commission helped put an end to those."
Until 1987, on the solid waste side, the Meadowlands received nearly 40 percent of the state's trash. That was largely stopped, and most of the trash dumps sealed. The streams leading into the river had been cleaned, and a center for environmental research and education established.
The Meadowlands Commission was the state's answer to a pressing problem the federal government would not address fully until 1972 when passing the Clean Water Act. Because of this, significant differences existed between aspects of the Commission's mandates and those set forth under federal law. After years of legal haggling, various governmental regulatory bodies from the state and federal government met to form a plan that would bridge the differences. It took these bodies nearly 14 years to develop what was called a "Special Area Management Plan," alarming many in the environmental community with their proposed development so much that they declared war on the plan and the Meadowlands Commission.
This plan had predicted the construction of thousands of housing units, warehouses, hotels, stores, high-tech facilities and the creation of as many as 100,000 jobs in the Meadowlands district. And while it also sought to preserve 7,700 acres of wetlands, enhance 3,400 of degraded wetlands and seal many of the 27 abandoned landfills, the plan also included significant development and to the dismay of the environmental community - the filling of some wetlands to accomplish this development.
Goals contained in the new plan
The new plan outlined several new and important goals, including preservation of existing wetlands, open space, and the historical heritage of the Meadowlands; development only in upland areas; and adherence to the state's new anti-sprawl regulation by promoting redevelopment of brownfields. Brownfields are contaminated properties.
"Redevelopment is key to this new plan," said the exuberant Ceberio.
With the push to limit suburban sprawl part on Gov. Jim McGreevey's agenda, the new Meadowlands master plan falls in line with the concept of keeping any existing undeveloped land from the embrace of the bulldozer, while promoting only land that already has been the site of development for new development. Often, this means cleaning up the contamination left behind by the sloppy manufacturing habits of the past.
Ceberio, chanting like an environmental convert, said the plan also focuses on the improvement of transportation modes throughout the Meadowlands, and anticipates an upcoming "Transit Village" Study for the south end of Secaucus which could unveil a redevelopment plan to include new retail business, new housing and other more productive uses of land either currently unused or under used with warehouses in conjunction with area transit.
Heaps of praise
Most amazing was the praise heaped upon Ceberio by his former adversaries in the environmental community. Representatives from The Baykeeper, the Riverkeeper and Sierra Club - all nonprofit environmental groups - gushed forth with compliments about the change of heart the Commission displayed in its conversion to the philosophy of preservation over development of wetlands.
Mayor Dennis Elwell said the preservation movement was an outgrowth to some degree of efforts by his predecessor, Mayor Anthony Just, who helped preserve a huge section of the Mill Creek area once designated to see up to 3,000 townhouses. Elwell said the change in relationship between the Commission and the community bode well for the future.
"It used to be that the municipalities were against the Commission," Elwell said. "That has gone away largely due to the people currently sitting on the commission. Instead of telling us what to do, this commission listens to mayors and others."
Ceberio said this would be a policy in the future, and would include tax sharing to aid those communities who might lose potential taxable property due to the preservation of wetlands.
Ceberio said the Commission would be aggressive in its effort to purchase wetlands currently owned by private entities, and where initial offers of purchase are rejected, the Commission would use its legal ability to condemn and purchase properties at market value. This equated to about $10,200 per acre.
Not so fast - critics still have their say
Not everyone was pleased, although critics at the hearing differed in their motivations.
Although environmental activists were thrilled at the new master plan's determination to purchase and protect property, owners of that property protested the lack of consideration for people who purchased these properties in good faith before ever expanding wetlands restrictions made it impossible to get a return on their investment.
Personal legal representatives for former Congressman Frank J. Guarini (D-14th Dist.) noted that the congressman has owned a parcel of property in North Bergen for 33 years with the intention of using it for freight storage or some other use connected to adjacent train traffic. The land, if viewed from that perspective, would have a much greater value than proposed under the new master plan.
Riverkeeper Bill Sheehan argued that if the land was that valuable, the congressman could have sold it previously. But he neglecting to note that under the Federal Clean Water Act, these acres would have needed a variety of permits which under growing restrictions would not have been issued, making the resale value of the property almost nothing.
Tom Bruinooge, a Rutherford lawyer representing several of the owners in the area, said some areas have no wetland value and yet would be taken away from property owners at a rate well below the actual marketable value.
Court challenges can be expected as a result.
Former Secaucus Mayor Just also chimed in, saying that the Commission's recent turnaround does not undo the damage of earlier approvals, such as those that will allow the construction of the Secaucus Transfer Station's "Allied Junction" commercial complex as well as the significant expected expansion of housing in south Secaucus by what could be thousands of units, which could dramatically alter the nature of Secaucus.
"But even this new Commission has approved development in Secaucus," Just said. "Only recently, it gave approval for the construction of 212 townhouses on five acres of land. I don't think this tiger has changed its stripes much. It is only saying it has."