Lacey delays action on selling rail trail

Published in the Asbury Park Press 7/25/03

LACEY -- With hundreds of residents looking on, the Township Committee last night postponed action on a controversial ordinance that would allow the old Central Railroad of New Jersey right-of-way to become a rail trail.

Republican Committeeman Louis A. Amato, who has been a swing vote in the rail trail issue, made the motion to postpone the public hearing and vote on adopting the ordinance to the Aug. 14 meeting. Amato said the proposal needed to be studied more before he could vote in an intelligent manner on the ordinance. The vote to delay action was unanimous.

Residents filled the multipurpose room of the Middle School for a scheduled hearing on the ordinance, which would convey the 3-mile strip of land to Ocean County to become part of a tree-lined, bicycle and jogging path through several municipalities.
"It's good to see (the large crowd), it's very, very heartening," said Helen V. Duffy of Abbey Court.

"I wish more of these people came out to these meetings more often," said Martha Molinini, twice a Democratic candidate for committee. "It's about time people started to take an interest in what's happening in the town."

Opponents of the plan favor building a new road on the railbed to relieve traffic congestion on Route 9. Supporters argue the trail is crucial to preserving open space and the general quality of life here.

"Being a local boy raised here, I've never seen anything like this," Committeeman John C. Parker said of the crowd, much of it applauding him, an opponent of the plan. "I just want to thank all of you people for coming here tonight. At 6:30 this evening, I didn't know which way this would go."

Parker agreed that the ordinance needed further study and he publicly thanked Amato, a fellow Republican with whom he has disagreed with on recent issues. But last night Parker said he was proud of Amato.

Parker said the he was in favor of putting another referendum on the November ballot -- voters approved by a slim margin the rail trail plan in public question a 2001 -- but told residents: "Don't you ever let any Township Committee, of any party, ever let them give (the railbed) away."

Parker then said, "Why should 27,000 people have to suffer tax-wise and traffic-wise to protect some woman's back yard?"
He was referring to Lacey Rail-Trail Chairwoman Donna A. Bahrle, who has been championing the rail trail concept for three years and whose home abuts the trail.

Amato explained that he presented 17 questions to the county Board of Freeholders to better understand that board's intentions. Among them: how did the county acquire the land in other towns; would the bridges that cross creeks and rivers be capable of supporting motor vehicles in the event of an emergency; what about security issues and ATVs; and would the land revert back to the township in the event the rail trail isn't developed.

Democratic Committeeman Robert G. Bischoff agreed, explaining he had other questions.  Mayor Brian A. Reid announced that the Aug. 14 meeting would also be held at the Middle School.

Opponents of the transfer have also argued that a new road would open a wooded area to development. Such development, they say, would help keep property taxes in check after the Oyster Creek nuclear power plant ceases operation. Supporters of the plan point to the results of the nonbinding 2001 referendum.

The objectors have tried to muster opposition to the plan by contending the $96,600 in debt, owed to the county, that would be canceled if the transfer is approved is too little.  Parker and other officials contend that the value of the railbed is about $4 million and last night, Parker claimed that his original estimates might be far more conservative and that the actual value of the land may be as much as $10 million.

The county's planned 14-mile long, tree-lined, bicycle and jogging path would cost about $5.1 million and include restrooms, modeled after 19th Century train stations, placed every few miles along the trail.

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