The lawsuit is the most recent in a string of lawsuits filed in opposition to the Xanadu project. Other lawsuits have been filed by the town of Carlstadt and Hartz Mountain Industries who lost a bid to develop the project.
The proposed complex, located in the Continental Airlines Arena area, is expected to create approximately 20,000 jobs and contain almost five million square feet of mixed commercial development, including a family entertainment center, office space, hotel/conference facilities, and a minor league baseball stadium.
According to a press release issued by the Sierra Club, the organization argues that despite reports from hearing officers that the environmental impacts were not fully understood and further information related to regional traffic effects, air quality, stormwater management and destruction of wetlands should be required, the state agencies gave the proposal by Mills/Mack Cali Corporation carte blanche.
"The public has been unable to fully review the negative impacts of the Xanadu project," said Jeff Tittel, director of the Sierra Club. "There are many questions about how much traffic and air pollution will be added to the region because of this mega-mall, and the state has ignored their responsibility to demand answers."
A lease signing ceremony was held Oct. 5 to mark the beginning of the $1.3 billion project, which is expected to be open to the public in 2007. The New Jersey Meadowland Commission Board of Commissioners approved a hearing officer's report on Aug. 25 which recommended certain zoning guidelines for how the 104-acre mixed commercial Xanadu development project can be built in the Meadowlands.
The report, written by the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission Executive Director Robert Ceberio and Department of Environmental Protection Chief of Staff Gary Sondermeyer, addressed concerns with the project including: traffic, parking, business, environmental issues, and tax issues that impact communities within the Hackensack Meadowlands.
The Xanadu developers, the Mills/Mack-Cali partnership, will receive $26.8 million from the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority in return for the transfer of the Empire Tract to the Meadowlands Conservation Trust. The tract is a marsh stretching over approximately 587 acres of wetlands along the west bank of the Hackensack River in the Town of Carlstadt.
Last month, in a letter to George Zoffinger, President and CEO of the Sports Authority, Mayor Dennis Elwell urged the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority to follow all of the Meadowlands Commission's recommendations related to the Xanadu redevelopment project as a way of protecting Secaucus and all communities in the area.
The Sierra Club argues in its press release that the accepted Xanadu proposal allows for the degradation of 10 acres of wetlands with an additional 7.5 acres of wetlands to be filled. It further argues that the 7.5 acres were protected by the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority in the original development of the site in 1978. "Xanadu is a nightmare for residents of northern New Jersey, and it'll be the taxpayers who have to shoulder the costs of the traffic, air pollution and water degradation that this project will cause," said Tittel. "That's what happens when you build a mall first and look at the impacts later."
Chris Gale, spokesperson for the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission said, "The Hearing Officer Report written by the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission and New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection was produced only after ensuring a maximum level public input was invited and considered. The resulting report, based on that input, is a tough but fair defense of residents' environment and interests. We are confident it will be upheld."
Jim DeBosh, spokesperson for the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, said, "We're naturally disappointed that the Sierra Club would try and stop the project. We think it's overall a big plus for the environment when you consider that the Empire Tract will be preserved."
The developers originally called for a commercial mitigation bank that would allow developers to obtain credits to fill in other wetland locations throughout the state. According to DeBosh, the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority purchased rights from Mills/Mack-Cali to prevent wetland development throughout the state. He said, "There won't be wetlands filled in elsewhere in the state as a result of this."
Hackensack Riverkeeper's Position
Hackensack Riverkeeper and Meadowlands Conservation Trust Chairman Bill Sheehan is extremely upset about the lawsuit, because he believes it may jeopardize the future of the Empire Tract and could undermine the master plan adopted by the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission earlier this year.
Sheehan said he has worked on the project through the 1990s and into the present era with the Mills Corporation. Sheehan has been involved as both the Hackensack Riverkeeper and partially as the Meadowlands Issues Coordinator for the Sierra Club. He said, "We were able to get them to change the focus of their desires to develop in the Meadowlands from the Empire Tract to the Continental site." Sheehan eventually resigned as the Meadowlands Issues Coordinator and did not renew his Sierra Club membership because of differences of opinion with Tittel.
Sheehan remembers sitting at the meetings with the highest level of state government, the developers, the Chamber of Commerce and the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission trying to figure out a way to preserve the 587 acres of wetlands while simultaneously working with the Mills Corporation.
Sheehan is worried that the pending lawsuits will ultimately undermine the years of work involved in working towards preserving the Empire Tract.
He said, "If the Sierra Club and the town of Carlstadt and Hartz Mountain Industries are successful in bringing down Xanadu, the result could be far-reaching in the culture of the Meadowlands because Mills could turn around, go back to the Corps of Engineers, and tell the Corps of Engineers that the alternative didn't work and now they want their permit to fill in almost 200 acres of those wetlands. That, in turn, could set off a chain of events within the Meadowlands that would break the back of the master plan that was promulgated this year by the Meadowlands Commission."
Sheehan says that if a permit is issued to develop the Empire Tract, the current zoning could be overturned, and all of the other property owners who rezoned under the new master plan could take up their own causes. In effect, he says, this could result in a backlash that would turn back the clocks to the year 1992, when there was a lot of disputes with the land owners.
Sheehan said, "It would negate the work that Bob Ceberio has done. It would negate the work that Riverkeeper has done. Ultimately, it would negate the work that thousands upon thousands of people in New Jersey did when they rallied behind us to protect the Empire Tract."
Regardless of the lawsuits, Sheehan says the Meadowlands Conservation Trust has a signed and notarized agreement with Mills that requires one of two events to occur in order for the transfer of the Empire Tract to transfer title.
He said, "If the Corps of Engineers issues the permit for the Continental site, the Empire Tract will automatically come to the trust. If the Meadowlands Sports and Exposition Authority settles their financial dealings with Mills, then that would trigger a transfer of the title. We need either one of those things to take place in order for the land to be finally protected."
He added, "Those are the things that are out there that are making me uncomfortable. The reason they are hanging out there now is because of the lawsuits."
The Hackensack Riverkeeper organization is holding its 5th annual Hackensack Riverkeeper Awards Celebration and Sustainable Seafood Fest on Monday, Oct. 25, 2004. The event will commemorate the preservation of the Empire Tract.