State gives thumbs up to Monroe land swap

Opposing groups expected to appeal decision in lawsuit


Staff Writer

More than two years after voters in Monroe approved the construction of a new high school, a state agency OK’d the controversial land swap that will allow it to be built in Thompson Park.

The State House Commission voted unanimously last Thursday for the land exchange that gives the township 35 acres for the new school, to be built across School House Road from the current high school.

Opponents of the proposal felt the state rushed its ruling, which came one month after the second of two public hearings on the issue, while supporters stated that the approval, coming more than a year after an application was submitted, had been delayed long enough.

Monroe Board of Education President Kathy Kolupanowich said township and school officials followed the process correctly and had the support of the greater community, as well as county and state officials.

“So, along the way we kept getting this support,” Kolupanowich said. “It was just a matter of patience and waiting for the outcome, which is always difficult.”

Township resident Michele Arminio, a member of Park Savers, a grassroots group that opposed the land diversion, said state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Commissioner Bradley Campbell signed off on the proposal too quickly while on his way out of office. Gov. Jon Corzine has nominated assistant DEP commissioner Lisa Jackson to replace Campbell.

Campbell’s recommendation to the State House Commission, Arminio said, was approved despite testimony that the application was incomplete.

“We were not surprised,” Arminio said. “But we were disappointed by the dismissal of testimony and evidence on behalf of the State House Commission.”

The proposal was under Campbell’s jurisdiction because the state Green Acres Program had to approve the transfer.

The township will turn over a total of 152 acres, in two nearly equal-size properties, to be added to Thompson Park, in exchange for the 35 acres. The township originally offered 77 acres, but added another 75 to the application.

The current high school would become a middle school, creating what officials have called a campus environment with shared facilities at the intersection of Perrineville and School House roads.

A late addition to the application was a $1.127 million payment from the township to the county. The replacement land was appraised at $2.27 million, and the cash payment brings the total compensation to just over $3.4 million — the appraised value of the 35 acres of park land.

Township Environmental Protection Manager Joe Montanti said that although the park land was designated for municipal open space, which prevents the construction of homes on it, it was appraised as an R-30 residential zone that allows for the construction of one unit on every three-quarters of an acre.

Montanti said DEP officials were not looking for additional land to even the transaction, but rather felt the township should pay the difference.

“They saw that they could get more, so they asked for it, and the town readily agreed, because we don’t have any other options,” Montanti said.

The state requires that the township show indisputable evidence that there are no feasible alternatives to the park land.

Opponents of the land swap contend that the township owns several possible alternatives, but Montanti said those additional parcels are encumbered by wetlands or constrained by power lines.

Montanti said about $500,000 of the cash compensation would be used to build six new soccer fields on Perrineville Road, across from the Concordia Shopping Center, thus replacing some of the fields that will be lost in the construction of the new high school. The rest, he said, will most likely be used by the county to make additional improvements to the soccer fields or begin constructing trails through the park.

Although the money could be used as the county sees fit, Montanti said officials have expressed a desire to continue to improve the park.

“The impression I got from the county was they would like to pump it right back into Thompson Park,” he said.

But Arminio said officials and supporters of the proposal should not be celebrating just yet.

“People may be under the misconception that it’s over, but it’s not,” Arminio said. “There’s always the courts.”

The possibility of a lawsuit has been present since the township, school district and county filed the application for the land swap.

Arminio said the approval showed that state officials simply ignored the evidence, practically asking for a lawsuit.

“We believe that things were done improperly; it was an incomplete application and the lame duck Bradley Campbell signed off on it,” Arminio said.

She said an attorney for Green Acres admitted during her testimony that certain issues with the application had not yet been resolved, and many opponents of the proposal were not allowed to give testimony.

And while the legal complaint will make several such claims, Park Savers will not be the only group represented in the suit by Richard Webster, attorney with the Rutgers University Environmental Law Clinic. The New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club, NJPIRG (New Jersey Public Interest Research Group) and New Jersey Conservation Foundation are expected to be named as plaintiffs in the complaint as well.

“We’re all on board to go forward with a lawsuit,” Arminio said. “We have other citizens groups outside of Monroe, as well as people in Monroe, who are still appalled at this decision, and are still willing to fight to bring it to the public’s attention.”

But Kolupanowich said the public is aware. She said parents are aware of the need for a new school, residents are aware of the plan’s tax benefits, and everybody is aware of the overcrowding occurring in township schools.

Such points were raised and debated at two public hearings held by the county at the recommendation of the DEP in November and December. Each meeting lasted about five hours and included testimony from about 70 people.

The State House Commission’s report on the approval of the land diversion states that the majority of participants at the first hearing supported the proposal, while the opposite was true at the second.

The commission was charged with reviewing the 10 hours of testimony, as well as several hundred written comments on the application, which included a petition opposing the application and several form letters stressing the need for the new school.

The report’s conclusions echoed the testimony given by supporters of the proposal at the hearings.

It cited “the compelling need for a school, the significant public benefit it will yield, the lack of feasible alternatives, the quality of the replacement parcel, its contribution to the preservation of the environment, the lack of any impact on historic sites and its cost-effectiveness” as the reasons for the approval.

The report also discussed the issue of whether the application was complete, which is one of the topics that would likely take center stage if the lawsuit is filed.

In its summary of the arguments made, the report states that a former member of the Middlesex County Open Space Advisory Committee claimed the application was missing key elements, and was therefore “incomplete, inadequate and premature, rendering the hearings voidable.”

In a response that served as the basis and defense of the commission’s ruling, the report does not use the word “incomplete,” but rather “deficient.”

“One point raised by the opposition is that the township’s application is deficient. We disagree,” the report reads.

The report then implies the difference between incomplete and deficient.

“Any deficiency is immaterial to review of the application,” it states.

The application is missing title reports, surveys and metes and bounds descriptions, the report offers.

As a result, the commission has laid out six conditions of approval. Three of them must be satisfied before the Green Acres restrictions on the park land can be lifted.

The first of these conditions requires the submission and approval of title and survey work and metes and bounds descriptions.

Therefore, according to the report, the application is incomplete, but the omitted information must be presented to the commission before construction can begin.

Monroe Superintendent of Schools Ralph Ferrie said that until that time, district officials will focus on completing the design of the building, which is still scheduled to open in September 2011.

Ferrie said officials are both pleased by the approval and excited to take such a significant step toward their goal.

Kolupanowich said the decision is evidence that the district’s plan is working and on schedule. She added that the design of the building is about 85 percent complete.

“I’m just happy that it’s over, and now we can build the school,” Kolupanowich said. “The students in Monroe deserve to have a quality education in quality facilities, and we will be able to do that for them.”

Arminio, however, said the legal battle may just be beginning.

She said the groups are reviewing all their options, and that if the lawsuit is the appropriate next step in the process, then that is the direction the groups will take.

“We are gaining momentum, and we have gotten more people who have contacted us who are interested in still saving the park,” Arminio said. “That is a fact.”