by Carleton Montgomery, Executive Director
You may have heard about the controversy over building a solar power facility on the former Stafford Township landfill. Over the past week, the Commissioner of Environmental Protection, the Pinelands Commission, and finally a body called the State House Commission have all signed off on a no-bid deal the township made with Walters Group, the developer of the Stafford Park and many other developments in the Stafford area. Walters gets a 30-year lease on the land to build and operate the solar facility – for a profit – in exchange for paying the township an amount of money which the township says should amount to something like $75-150,000 a year in lease payments.
All along, the township advocated for diversion without compensation. It did not want to provide a single acre of replacement parkland. It got its way.
Solar power is good, right? It is, of course. The problem is that this land had been lawfully deed-restricted “in perpetuity” as conservation open space. Just as with homes – which are even more essential to us than solar energy facilities – we need them, but not everywhere.
The question before the DEP Commissioner, Pinelands Commission, and State House Commission was not whether New Jersey supports solar power. It was whether to build a solar power facility on one particular piece of land which government had promised to protect forever as parkland. They all chose to chuck out the conservation deed restriction with no compensatory parkland required.
PPA, the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, Sierra Club, New Jersey Environmental Lobby, and other environmental groups – who all support solar power – condemned this deal.
The development of open space is termed a “diversion” under the regulations of the state Green Acres program. We believe the Stafford deal violates the Green Acres diversion rules. You can see our detailed arguments by going to the section on this issue on our website.
The deal violates two fundamental principles set out in the Green Acres diversion rules:
First, the rules say that diversions are only to be used in very limited circumstances, as a “last resort,” where there is a genuine necessity to the diversion – not in cases, such as this one, where a local government would like to generate money by developing preserved land through a commercial lease.
Second, the rules say that any diversion should result in “no net loss of parkland.” This deal obviously does that.
The township argued that no compensating parkland is required, and the DEP agreed, because this is being done by a lease, so it’s potentially temporary. One day the land could be restored (wink, wink, nudge, nudge).
The facts of the case actually show this is not just a lease, and it is not temporary. The development cannot proceed unless the permanent deed restriction is released to allow this specific development, and the lease gives the developer the exclusive right to use the land in this particular way for at least 30 years – that is a permanent loss of the conservation restriction, amounting to an easement on the land, that must in all fairness be treated as a permanent elimination of the conservation restriction.
This deal is bad public policy. It undermines the public’s confidence in the integrity of government and the sanctity of our conservation lands. What confidence can we have in any conservation protections if they can be so easily lifted with no obligation to provide compensatory parkland somewhere else?