Two years after then Gov. Christine Whitman toured the Mill Creek mitigation area in Secaucus, officials said the area would be a park - and would become one of the natural wonders of the state. Whitman even took a 15-minute long canoe ride in the newly restored waterways to prove her point. But long after Whitman gave up her canoe for a federal appointment, the site has yet to be opened to the public.
Officials from New Jersey Meadowlands Commission said this week that the site needs a few repairs and the public can expect to tour the area by the spring of 2002.
The Mill Creek Wetlands Enhancement Project was designed to rehabilitate 143 acres of degraded wetlands. The idea behind the project was to help make the Meadowlands wilderness a little more accessible to the public, while also restoring the wetlands to their original, functioning state.
Whitman called the Secaucus-based network of trails "a wonder of the Meadowlands."
As envisioned, the trails would open up sections of restored wetlands and allow residents in the largely urban area to witness wildlife in its natural habitat. There will be uplands elevation, construction of hiking trails, boardwalks and bridge construction, in a maze of paths that will follow the flow of water on a new constructed network of waterways, islands and impoundment areas. There will be two projected entrances, one from an area near Mill Creek Mall in Secaucus and another at Island Boulevard near the Movie Theaters, a short distance from the North Bergen border.
By controlling the growth of reeds and re-establishing tidal flow as well as the creation of open water areas and the planting of native vegetation, the HMDC hoped to create an environment that will result in low marsh habitats that are flushed daily by the tides. The site, which is still scheduled to open in May or June, would display for the public a vast array of wild life and natural plants.
The work began in May, 1998. As of December of 2000, it supposedly needed only the planting of native vegetation before the park was slated to open in the spring of 2001.
Robert Cerberio, deputy executive director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission (NJMC), said a few problems occurred that delayed the opening.
Tide water breached berms supporting some of the trails, Cerberio said in his report the commission. Some of the gates to control water did not function properly, and the commission is changing its approach.
"We've decided to allow tides to flood the area on its own," he said, "without outside help."
Repairs, however, will be necessary to make certain the trails and bridges do not shift. This could require the installation of concrete pilings. One of the bridges in the trail system actually shifted.
"This was all the result of natural factors, not something done wrong by the company hired to construct the trails," he said.
The low bidder on the repairs just happened to be the same company that had won the original contract to design and construct the project: Geo Com, a New Jersey-based environmental company. The NJMC awarded the $573,700 contract at its Nov. 27 meeting.
The site was slated originally for housing
Of the 203 acres of the Mill Creek project purchased in conjunction with the town of Secaucus in a $5 million deal in 1996 from Hartz Mountain Industries, 140 acres are being restored to a wetland state by the HMDC. Stricter federal wetland laws and shifting market conditions made Hartz's original intention for the land - a 2,000 unit housing development - a less attractive investment. The development project had been in the planning stages since the 1980s. The land, which is currently held in trust for preservation, will eventually be opened up to river water allowing the area to function as a wetland again. Construction of the New Jersey Turnpike and other factors had largely dried out the land over the years.
This is pristine land, never developed, but previously had been subjected to an infestation of common reeds that had reduced the tidal flow. By controlling the growth of reeds and re-establishing tidal flow as well as the creation of open water areas and the planting of native vegetation, the HMDC hopes to create an environment that will result in low marsh habitats that are flushed daily by the tides; lowland scrub-shrub habitats along the marsh/upland ecology; creation of dabbling duck, shorebird, and wading bird breeding, wintering and migratory habitats; greater fishery access; and some degree of mosquito control.
With one significant change order issued in late 1999, the project's original cost was pegged at $4.4 million. The repairs will put the estimated final cost at slightly over $5 million . The money for the project came from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, New Jersey Transit, the Department of Transportation and the Jet Aviation Executive Airfleet, as part of requirements for developing land in other parts of the state. Developers seeking certain kinds of construction permits are required under the federal Clean Water Act to pay for restoration of various wetland sites.
Preserving the Meadowlands?
The New Jersey Meadowlands Commission announced that it has begun a policy of establishing smart growth areas in order to balance conservation of natural open space with existing and planned development areas. To this end, the commission has acquired over 1,700 acres of open space and has received management rights to another 1,600 acres. The NJMC voted at its Nov. 27 meeting to create new permanent preservation areas, and to designate these areas in the Meadowlands master plan. Sites not owned outright by the NJMC have deed restrictions already in place that would not allow development anyway, so that there would be no loss of tax ratables, NJMC officials said.
"We have worked to preserve this areas and consulted with the environmental community as part of an ongoing partnership," said Alan Steinberg, executive director of the NJMC.
In addition to this, the NJMC has created the position of District Preservation Officer, who will work with federal and state agencies to help protect against illegal dumping, discharges and wetland fills.
"This officer would serve as eyes and ears for state and federal agencies and would report violations to them," said Bob Cerberio, NJMC deputy executive director.