By Philip Sean Curran
The goal of preserving 2,000 acres of farmland and open space around National Weapons Station Earle could more than double, said an official close to the land conservation project.
“We’re considering increasing it to 5,000 acres,” said Dennis Blazak, community plans and liaison officer at the U.S. Navy base, in a phone interview with The Two River Times Feb. 21. But “Monmouth County is pretty built up and that might be very hard to achieve,” he added.
Last year, the Navy, Monmouth County and the nonprofit Monmouth Conservation Foundation announced a multiyear partnership to preserve land to expand the buffer around Earle, the ammunition depot spanning 11,851 acres in parts of five towns, including a waterfront complex in Middletown Township that goes into Sandy Hook Bay.
“The objective is to prevent development along the railroad corridor that goes from the main base, which is mostly in Colts Neck and somewhat in Tinton Falls and Howell and also around the pier area,” said William D. Kastning, executive director of the Monmouth Conservation Foundation, in an interview with The Two River Times Feb. 21. “But it’s highly developed already.”
The tripartite arrangement, announced in October, would involve buying open space and acquiring development rights on farms from willing sellers, Blazak said. Eminent domain will not be used, he said.
In cases involving land purchases, the Navy will own an easement to the parcel, not the land itself, Blazak said. Ownership would either pass to the county, the municipality where the land is located or to a nongovernmental organization, he said.
“There’s a very extensive county park system in Monmouth County,” Blazak said. “And one of the things we’re trying to do is connect up those park properties so that there’s what they call natural resource corridors so that animals and birds and whatnot can travel from one to another without having to go into developed or urban areas.”
But the scope of preservation efforts would extend beyond the lands immediately around NWS Earle, to what is called a “military influence area” – namely parts of the county where potential development could hinder the base’s operations. Overall, that area encompasses a total of 70,000 acres in about 30 towns in the county.
In 2018, the county and the Navy said acquiring 2,000 acres would cost about $10 million, with a government program for land preservation eyed to provide half that total. At the time of last year’s announcement, the Navy committed $765,000 toward the first acquisition.
To find potential sellers, Blazak said the county keeps prioritized lists of land owners whose property might be a good fit for farmland preservation or open space purchases. The first possible site is a roughly 230-acre farm in Colts Neck on Normandy Road, Kastning said.
“We’re trying to push that one,” he said. “But we’re in the process of determining its valuation.”
He said the $765,000 from the federal government will not be enough to close the deal, so it will mean getting funding from the county, the state and Colts Neck. One challenge is getting all the various funding entities and the owner of the land to agree to the legal wording of an easement.
“So, if it’s too constraining on any one party, then it won’t move forward,” he said. “So the more parties you have in it, the more difficult it is to get concurrence.”
For the Navy, preserving open space is a “climate adaptation tactic,” Blazak said.
He said the Navy wants to make sure the towns in and around Earle can withstand major weather events, like another Super Storm Sandy, so NWS Earle can function normally and workers can get to and from the base. One way to accomplish that is to preserve land that otherwise would be developed, thus allowing rainfall to be absorbed naturally in the ground or go into streams that flow into larger bodies of water.
“We’re looking at areas not necessarily right next to the base but in the area, because we want to make sure that the surrounding community continues to adapt to the changing climate, so that we protect or enhance the stormwater capacity of the streams,” he said. “So that means protecting both the stream corridors as well as upland areas.”
He said another aim is protecting coastal areas that face storm surge to ensure critical infrastructure is protected and evacuation routes are not flooded.
Sandy caused roughly $50 million worth of damage to Earle and left a facility, which supplies ammunition to the Navy’s Atlantic Fleet, without electricity for about eight days. The facility was able to operate during that time, however.
“The Navy is going to take care of changing the infrastructure on board the base,” Blazak said. “But if we’re the only ones who do that, if we’re the only ones who prepare for the future… then we’ll be left as just an island in the stream if the surrounding community doesn’t adapt as well. So the community has to do that. Or what we do is pointless.”
Around the country, the government seeks to preserve land around its military installations through private-public arrangements by working with state and local governments and others.
Since the early 2000s, the Pentagon said 586,665 acres in 33 states have been protected at a cost of $1.6 billion. In New Jersey, that total includes 9,033 acres at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in Ocean and Burlington counties, and 179 acres at the Warren Grove Range in Ocean County. The federal government picks up most of the costs involved, with other funding partners contributing money as well.
But preserving land in Monmouth County, an area close to Manhattan, costs more than it does in other parts of the country.
“If you were buying $5 million worth of desert in northern Nevada, you can buy an awful lot of desert,” Blazak said. “But the question is how much development potential does that land really have.
“We have utilities that are readily available. There’s an affluent population. There’s a road network. Any piece of open land is much, much more desirable here in Monmouth County than it would be in an extremely remote part of some other section of the country.”
This article was first published in the Feb. 28-March. 6, 2019 print edition of The Two River Times.
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