Lacey rail-trail vote likely to draw crowd

Published in the Asbury Park Press 7/24/03

LACEY -- One of the largest crowds ever expected for a Township Committee meeting may show up at the middle school tonight to speak out on the long-running rail-trail issue.

Township Clerk Veronica A. Laureigh said seating in the multipurpose room of Lacey Township Middle School, Denton Avenue, was being set up to accommodate 345 people. The meeting is scheduled for 8 p.m.  At least two police officers are assigned to the meeting to maintain order if necessary, Laureigh said.

After three years of debate, the committee is poised to decide tonight whether to incorporate a three-mile stretch of railroad right of way in a larger Ocean County plan to build a 14-mile bicycle and jogging path from South Toms River to Barnegat.

Opponents of the proposal say at least one mile of the strip of land should be used to build a road to relieve traffic congestion on Route 9 and to open a wooded area in the heart of town to development. Such development, they say, would help keep property taxes in check after the Oyster Creek nuclear power plant ceases operation.

The site of the meeting was moved from town hall at the direction of Mayor Brian A. Reid on Monday. Laureigh said it's the first time in her recollection that an audience was expected be too large for town hall.

The site was changed after people on either side of the rail-trail issue took out full-page advertisements in the Lacey Mailbag, a free shopping circular, asking residents to attend the meeting and speak out.

The meeting room at town hall can accommodate up to 125 people under fire code regulations, though at committee meetings on the rail-trail issue, attendance has often surpassed that figure, with the audience spilling into the lobby, Laureigh said.

A public hearing on an ordinance to convey the 3-mile-long rail bed to Ocean County -- in exchange for canceling a $96,600 debt to the county -- is at the end of the agenda.  Robert W. Hoebee has been a proponent of building a road on at least one mile of the old Central Railroad of New Jersey right of way.  Hoebee said he is optimistic that he can still change the mind of at least one committee member.

On the committee, Republican Louis A. Amato and Democrats Robert G. Bischoff and Helen Dela Cruz support the rail trail. Reid and Republican John C. Parker support building the road.

Some in the public believe the worth of the north-to-south right of way -- mostly in woods parallel to Route 9 -- is not $96,600 but $4 million. According to an appraisal of the rail bed by the township a few years ago, the value is about $30,000.

Hoebee said that if he can't change any minds, he'll have lawyers with him.  "There are going to be at least two legal challenges," he said. "One will concern the definition of sale vs. property exchange."

"The challenge will be against the fact that there is no land swap. There is land given for value, which equals a sale. Therefore, the property must legally be offered to the adjacent landholders as nonconforming lots."

Donna A. Bahrle, chairwoman of the Lacey Rail-Trail Committee, concedes that the opposition is well-organized -- sending out mailers and taking out full-page ads in the past few weeks. But she said she believes the committee ultimately will adopt the ordinance.  "The only thing I could say to the three of them (Amato, Bischoff and Dela Cruz) is, 'Uphold the will of the people,' " Bahrle said.

"Respect the referendum vote of 2001," she said of a nonbinding question in which voters, by a slim margin, supported the rail trail over the road.  "This project represents the future of Ocean County," Bahrle said. "It will be here 25 years from now, 50 years from now."

"And perhaps we'll come full circle. We may need rail service in southern Ocean County once again. The trail will be here to utilize in that capacity if we need it. Once it's a road, it will always be a road, because development will follow, as will more traffic. We're asking the committee to look at the big picture."

Hoebee said, "We see what is not important for Bob Hoebee, or any individual, or any section of the town, but we also clearly see what is important for the overall well-being of the town and the quality of life for the town."

Erik Larsen: (609) 978-4582 or [email protected]

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