Wetlands: To fill or not to fill

By: Matthew Kirdahy , Staff Writer     
South Brunswick Post, 06/10/2004

Route 92 would require creation of 57 new acres

The state Department of Environmental Protection says there are several ways a developer, or in the case of Route 92 the N.J. Turnpike Authority, can mitigate wetland damage, including, restoration, preservation and the construction of new wetlands.

However, the Wetlands Institute, located in Stone Harbor in Cape May County, says it's difficult to tell if manmade wetlands are a permanent fix for damage caused to existing wetlands.

According to a draft Environmental Impact Statement by the Army Corps of Engineers on Route 92, building the 6.7-mile road would mean filling 12.03 acres of wetlands, while an additional 1.16 acres would be permanently affected by shading from elevated sections of the road.

The Army Corps is conducting the review because federal and state environmental agencies disagree over whether permits should be issued for the filling of wetlands. The federal Environmental Protection Agency refused to issue permits in 1998, saying there were less environmentally disruptive alternatives, while the state Department of Environmental Protection issued permits in 1999.

The state permits expired March 29, but the N.J. Turnpike Authority has said it would apply to renew the permits, but wasn't sure when. Meanwhile, the Army Corps of Engineers will continue its review.

To lessen the wetlands impact, the Turnpike Authority would create 57 acres of new wetlands, extending north and south from the proposed highway, east of Haypress Road.

Route 92 is slated for the Devil's Brook wetland complex — a 1,650-acre wetland forest. The highway would traverse the forest near its southerly edge, with 500-acres to the south and 1,150 acres to the north. The constructed wetlands would connect to the existing wetlands bordering Devil's Brook, which will be filled in because of the project.

The EIS says the impacts to water circulation of existing wetlands would be minimized by the construction of culverts and bridges.

According to the EIS, Route 92 also would bisect the Plainsboro Preserve, with 12.5 acres of the property being separated to the north.

Also as part of the project's mitigation, the N.J. Turnpike Authority will preserve an additional 202 acres of forest wetlands with some forest uplands in the vicinity of Friendship and Miller roads.

However, there is still some question whether manmade wetlands are the same as natural wetlands.

"Is a manmade wetland ever going to be as good as a natural one?" Phil Broder, director of education at the Wetlands Institute, asked. "Probably not. But most manmade wetlands haven't been around long enough to answer that question."

The Wetland Institute is an educational facility located in Stone Harbor that "promotes the conservation and preservation of coastal ecosystems by providing a fun and educational experience for families, school groups and vacationers of all ages," according to its Web site.

Mr. Broder said wetlands are one of the most valuable environmental assets the state has. He said the types of wetlands people find in South Brunswick are freshwater marsh and swamp.

"Wetlands are more important than most people realize mainly because of their flood control value and (ability to) filter out pollutants," Mr. Broder said. "If you build artificial wetlands and there hasn't been any flooding nearby, then you say, well, there is a success. But can you improve on Mother Nature's work?"

For builders who destroy wetlands, the state Department of Environmental Protection provides rules and guidelines on wetlands mitigation.

The state protects its freshwater wetlands under the Freshwater Wetlands Protection Act. The act says the state must provide general permits before someone can disturb wetlands by constructing anything from a fence to a building. On its Web site, the DEP provides a list of freshwater wetlands protected under this act.

According to the DEP, wetlands are protected because they filter pollutants out of the water supply, store flood waters, control erosion and provide habitats for wildlife.

"The state takes a lot of steps to prevent disturbances that would require building wetlands," said Erin Fallon of the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife.

Ms. Fallon said land elevation and the amount of water on the site are the most important factors in choosing a place to reconstruct or construct artificial wetlands. There has to be enough water to saturate the ground and support the vegetation and wildlife. In order to maintain the water balance, the land elevation must be a certain height, which varies by project, she said. If the site can sustain the wetland creation, topsoil is brought to the site.

After wetland construction, the state monitors the area for three years to make sure vegetation is thriving, Ms. Fallon said.

Ms. Fallon also said it's an "if you build it, they will come" scenario regarding attracting wildlife to a manmade wetlands area.

According to the DEP, other wetlands mitigation activities include wetlands enhancement, wetlands restoration, purchase of wetlands mitigation credits, preservation of upland, wetlands mitigation fund contributions and donation of land.

Middlesex County's largest manmade wetland is a 12.47-acre tract in Woodbridge, a DEP spokesperson said.

In the case of wetland mitigation, developers also can rebuild wetlands in a wetland mitigation bank, a tract of land dedicated to manmade wetlands. Monroe Township has a wetland mitigation bank on Wycoffs Mill Road at the southwest corner of town.

Monroe Township Engineer Ernie Feist said the DEP operates the approximately 100-acre bank in conjunction with a private wetland mitigation company.

Members of the National Association of Industrial and Office Properties, a trade association for developers, owners and investors in industrial, office and related commercial real estate, has members who contribute to these banks based on association policy.

The executive director for the New Jersey chapter of the group, Michael McGuinness, said the association recognizes and respects the states requirements for filling wetlands and wetland mitigation.

"We're trying to live within the framework of existing legislators and regulators," Mr. McGuinness said. "We understand what's out there and that's what we're going for."