ATV park funding draws ire 11/30/05

For many, Green Acres is a state-run program typically associated with, well, green acres.

But in May, the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) spent $1.2 million in Green Acres money to purchase a 212-acre, former sand mining operation to potentially turn it into a park for all-terrain vehicles (ATV).

Environmentalists have cried foul, accusing the state of misusing money that they say should go toward preserving open space and developing "passive" recreation.

"There are so many other projects in the Gloucester County area that need money for preservation, to spend it on an ATV park makes no sense," said Jeff Tittel, executive director of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club. "I think it violates the public trust."

However, John Flynn, administrator for Green Acres, said the state is keeping in line with the program's goals.

"Our mission is to provide for outdoor recreation, and there are a lot of (residents) in the state that are using off-highway vehicles as their recreation form," Flynn said.

The Green Acres program was started in 1961, according to information on the DEP's Web site. The state paid for the program with $1.4 million in bonds until voters approved referendum in 1998 that established a stable source of funding for it.

To date, Green Acres has acquired more than 588,000 acres of open space, with more than 30,000 in 2005 alone. The program, under the umbrella of the DEP, also provides funding to local governments to develop parks.

But Green Acres money has also sponsored recreational activities less reliant on pristine land. In 1993, a $1 million Green Acres grant helped the county purchase the Pitman Golf Course in Mantua Township. The program has regularly helped local towns like Glassboro and Woodbury develop sports fields.

The state is now studying whether the land purchased off Jackson Road in Monroe is suitable for an ATV park.

Citing the many forms recreation can take, Flynn said "we don't know where to draw the line" when it comes to the recreational activities Green Acres can fund. In this instance, the DEP has set ATV parks as a priority, according to Flynn.

State officials have noted that numerous ATV enthusiasts now tread illegally on state land due to few other places to ride.

"(DEP Commissioner Bradley Campbell) has determined that as a part of a comprehensive response to that problem, we need to provide legal and safe places to ride," Flynn said.

But Tittel argues that the $1.2 million spent to buy the land should have instead supported open space and passive recreation like hiking, fishing and biking.

Rather than preserve the property, the emissions and noise generated by the four-wheeled vehicles would be disruptive for the local environment -- home to several endangered species, Tittel said.

The DEP will likely need an approval from the State House Commission -- which oversees state property -- before moving forward with an ATV park since it's not a permitted use under Green Acres, according to Tittel.

He said his organization would fight it there and potentially sue to block the project.

"It sets a very bad precedent for the state of New Jersey," Tittel said. "We're a strong believer in not only preserving open space but protecting it once it's bought."

Ed Knorr, chairman of the Monroe-based Green Action Alliance, agreed with Tittel.

"I think they're violating the intent and the spirit of Green Acres legislation, which is to preserve and not destroy," Knorr said.

According to Flynn, some of the concerns stem from Green Acre's dual purpose of providing for recreation and protecting the natural environment. Depending on their interest, groups often want the state to use Green Acres funds to pursue one goal over the other.

"The DEP is in the middle, trying to meet the needs of both," Flynn said.

Officials have said a public hearing would precede any final decision on the ATV park.

There will also be a review process by the state Pinelands Commission, according to DEP Spokeswoman Karen Hershey. She added that there could be other approval processes of which she was not immediately aware.