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It’s a bad time to be a tree in Jackson Township as clear cutting continues around town

Written by Randy Bergmann, republished with permission.

JACKSON TOWNSHIP, NJ – It’s a bad time to be a tree in Jackson, particularly those trees that have put down roots in the northwest corner of the township.

Bulldozers have been working overtime clear-cutting lots, and unless Jackson officials start showing some backbone in pushing back against developers, or concerned citizens continue to turn to the courts to find relief, the earth movers will be even busier in the weeks and months ahead.

Anyone who has driven lately on Route 537 near Great Adventure or Route 527 near Commodore Boulevard knows what I’m talking about.

Most deserving of Jackson residents’ immediate attention is the mammoth $500 million Adventure Crossing project on Route 537, which promises to be an environmental and traffic nightmare. The developer will appear before the Planning Board Monday night (7:30, Jackson Memorial High School) to present revised plans for the second phase of the project.

The first phase, now under construction, has created a 75-acre gash cut so deeply into in the forest that it takes binoculars to see the rear of it from Route 537. And it’s only the beginning of the deforestation. It constitutes about one-third of the trees that will be removed once all three phases of the project are completed.

The first phase will include eight restaurants – six of them fast-food joints, two hotels – a 140-room SpringHill Suites by Marriott and an inaptly named 134-room Hilton Garden Inn — a 120,000-square-foot indoor sports dome, eight outdoor sports fields and a 100,000-square-foot indoor recreational building with a trampoline park, indoor go-kart racing and an area for video game competitions.

The project also will include 500 apartments, 90 of which will be affordable.

On Monday, the developer will present the planning board with two alternative plans for the second phase, which originally was to have included a multi-level golf driving range and bar, the 500 apartments and an indoor hockey rink.

But a group called Jackson Neighbors Unite sued to block the plan, and the developer agreed in a settlement earlier this year to relocate the driving range away from properties on Anderson Road and neighboring streets. However, the developer reserved the right to come back with a revised plan.

On Monday, two alternative plans will be presented – both equally unacceptable: either three warehouses totaling 1.18 million square feet or two warehouses totaling 735,000 square feet and an unspecified, 450,000-square-foot recreation building.

Conveniently for the developer, soon after the settlement, the zoning board changed the zoning to allow warehouses and virtually any other commercial use between Great Adventure and I-195.

Given the mix of uses planned for Adventure Crossing and the existing hazardous traffic on Route 537, it’s hard to conceive of a worse idea than running trucks in and out of that site day and night.

The merging traffic heading east on Route 537 from Great Adventure toward the already perilous, poorly engineered I-195 exit and entrance ramps should have been addressed long ago. It would verge on the criminal for the Planning Board to grant any further approvals to Adventure Crossing before major improvements are planned and executed.

That area also will have to contend with the additional traffic from a second mega sports complex, Trophy Park, further west on Route 537. The $120 million, 194-acre project received general development plan approval from the Planning Board in March 2019 and is expected to seek final site plan approval later this year. A traffic study for Adventure Crossing also should incorporate the impact of Trophy Park.

Thousands more trees will have to be sacrificed to accommodate a 6,000-seat outdoor soccer stadium, 16 baseball and softball fields, 10 lacrosse fields, batting cages, field hockey and several practice fields, a 400,00-square-foot, two story, 16-court indoor facility for basketball, volleyball, wrestling and cheerleading, three restaurants, retail space and two Wyndham hotels.

Jackson officials have shown no inclination to put an end to the township’s deforestation and desuburbanization.

Four weeks ago, on the eastern side of Route 527 (aka Cedar Swamp Road), just south of Glory’s market, there used to be a forest. Today, only bare earth, toppled pine trees and stumps remain. The loss of the forest not only came as a surprise to motorists driving past the denuded site, but to homeowners on its southern border. They received no notification even though bulldozers raked the earth as close as five yards from their backyards.

At some point, what once was home to trees, squirrels, chipmunks and assorted birds will house a retention pond to collect runoff for a mixed-use development, i.e., retail on the first level with apartments above them.

The developer was exempt from Jackson’s tree removal ordinance because the site was included in an affordable housing settlement approved by the Jackson Township Council in 2017. That ordinance, however, does little to compensate for the damage clear-cutting large swaths of acreage anywhere does to the environment.

The Cedar Swamp Road site is part of the late Mitch Leigh’s Jackson 21 project, which received a 99-year general development approval more than 15 years ago. Two other pieces of the project, the Gardens at Jackson on West Commodore Boulevard and The Ponds on Freehold Road, have recently been completed, further reducing Jackson’s inventory of trees. In all, there will be eight projects as part of Jackson 21.

The Cedar Swamp Road site is being cleared because state Department of Environmental Protection approvals on the site were set to expire. The developer says it will likely be three to six months before final site plan approval will be sought from the planning board. Another project next to The Ponds will likely be the next to go before planners.

On the west side of Cedar Swamp Road, across from the Jackson 21 site, more trees will soon be cleared for a self-storage facility.

Also in the northwestern part of the township, residents are fighting back to prevent another environmental and traffic disaster. They have gone to court to block the Jackson Parke development — 1,100 residential units on 350 acres of trees and wetlands off Perrineville Road and West Veterans Highway.

In Jackson, residents who care about the environment, traffic safety and quality of life have to fend for themselves. They have absolutely no friends on the Township Council or planning and zoning boards.

Mayor Michael Reina and other elected and appointed officials argue commercial ratables are necessary to reduce Jackson’s reliance on residential property taxes. Commercial ratables do nothing of the sort, not when the impact of the strain it puts on infrastructure and municipal services is factored in. Quality of life and a healthy environment should trump all else.

Visitors to the Adventure Crossing website are greeted on the home page with this quote from Reina: “Jackson’s Future Has Arrived.” Only one thing can head that future off: Engaged citizens willing to fight back.

Randy Bergmann is an independent writer and not affiliated with Shore News Network.  This story was republished with permission.  Randy Bergmann served as the Editorial Page Editor of the Asbury Park Press from 2002 until 2020.  Prior to that, he served as a national editor for the Associated Press.  You can reach Mr. Bergman on Facebook.

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