State OKs land swap

The State House Commission unanimously approved trading 152 acres of Township property for Thompson Park land.

By: Leon Tovey
   MONROE — The State House Commission voted Thursday to let the Monroe school board proceed with a plan to build a new high school on a 35-acre parcel of county-owned Thompson Park.
   The bipartisan commission unanimously approved the township and Middlesex County’s request to exchange 152 acres of mostly wooded land owned by the township for the Thompson Park parcel, which is protected under the state Green Acres program.
   The township will also be required to pay $1.127 million in compensation to the county.
   "We’re very pleased with the commission’s decision," School Superintendent Ralph Ferrie said Thursday afternoon. "This proposal was an excellent example of a collaborative process between the township and the county and the Board of Education and now we’re prepared to move forward."
   Township voters in December 2003 approved an $82.9 million referendum to build the new 365,000-square-foot high school on the Thompson Park land, on Schoolhouse Road across from the current high school. The referendum was a scaled-down version of a $113 million, districtwide school expansion referendum that was defeated by voters in September 2002.
   The 2003 plan reduced costs by eliminating the need to buy more land and build new athletic fields for the new high school. Under the plan, the old high school will become a middle school and the two schools will share athletic fields and parking.
   The county and township applied for the exchange in mid-2004 and Green Acres officials spent more than a year reviewing it before giving the county the green light to hold public hearings last fall.
   More than 150 county and township residents spoke in support of and opposition to the exchange at hearings held in Monroe and New Brunswick in November and December. Testimony from the two hearings was reviewed by Green Acres officials and DEP Commissioner Bradley Campbell, who gave the plan their approval on Dec. 29, a DEP spokesperson said.
   Township Engineer Ernie Feist said Thursday that about $500,000 of the $1.127 million the township will be required to pay the county would be spent on the construction of a soccer complex at the intersection of Perrineville and Prospect Plains roads.
   The complex, which Mr. Feist has said might be paid for through county or state open space grants, will replace the six fields that currently exist on the Thompson Park parcel.
   Mr. Feist said the township would pay the remaining $627,000 out of its surplus account or through bonding.
   Dr. Ferrie said the next step for the district would be to finish the school’s design, which is currently about 85 percent complete. Rising construction costs have worried district officials and Dr. Ferrie said the design will need the approval of the state Department of Education.
   If all goes well, he said, the project could go out to bid by early 2007 and could be open by the fall of 2011.
   However, opponents of the swap — among them the New Jersey Chapter of the Sierra Club and local group Park Savers — have threatened repeatedly to sue to stop the diversion, saying the land being offered in the exchange is not of equal value and that the exchange would undermine the Green Acres program.
   Richard Webster, an attorney for the Rutgers Environmental Law Clinic, which is representing the Sierra Club and Park Savers, said the decision to approve the exchange was motivated by politics and that he doubted it would stand up in court.
   "We are currently considering our legal options at this point," he said. "There are significant problems with this application that we believe were overlooked and we want to see if this will stand up in court."
   Among the application’s most glaring problems, he said, are the appraisals for the replacement land, which is divided into three parcels — two parcels totaling 77 acres along Schoolhouse Road and a 75-acre parcel on Hoffman Station Road.
   Mr. Webster said the fact that the commission required the township to pay an additional $1.127 million for the deal proves that the county’s appraisals of the replacement properties were off and that the land is not of equal or greater value, a condition for the exchange set by Green Acres regulations.
   Mr. Webster said a final decision on how to proceed hasn’t been reached but that opponents of the exchange have 45 days to file suit to stop it. Such a suit would be brought to the Appellate Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey, he said.