PEMBERTON TWP. PRESCHOOL SITE SPAWNS CONTROVERSY

B

bach2yoga

Guest
PEMBERTON TWP. PRESCHOOL SITE SPAWNS CONTROVERSY

Date: 09 Feb 2004
From: Jane Nogaki {janogaki@eticomm.net}

PEMBERTON TWP. PLAN VIOLATES `SMART GROWTH,' OPPONENTS SAY

By Lawrence Hajna, Courier-Post Staff, February 8, 2004

Pemberton Twp. - The farmland at Arney's Mount Road has an unusual
feel for South Jersey.

The forested ridge of Arney's Mount rolls amid dairy farms, creating
a setting that's more evocative of Pennsylvania Dutch country than
notoriously flat South Jersey.

Because it is so pastoral and idyllic, the farmland, until recently
used to grow soybeans and corn, has become a battleground in the
state's debate over controlled development, or smart growth.

The township plans to build an early childhood education center on
the farmland for more than 600 4- and 5-year-olds. The state-funded
project could cost between $16 million and $20 million.

School district officials say the center, in effect a fully equipped
preschool, is needed to replace trailers at other schools that house
many of the young children. They add there are no better sites in the
64-square-mile township that don't have environmental, regulatory or
traffic concerns.

Opponents don't argue with the need for the school. But they do
question why the district is pushing for development of this site,
which is miles from the township's population center of Browns Mills
and across the road from a sewage-sludge application field.

They're looking for state intervention, fearing expansion of water
and sewer lines for the school could open up the area to other
development projects.

"This is basically blockbusting prime agricultural land, making
agriculture less viable and making it susceptible to residential
development because of the water and sewer availability," said Jane
Nogaki of the New Jersey Environmental Federation.

Opponents argue the school is inconsistent with Gov. James E.
McGreevey's smart growth policies and an executive order he issued in
2002 that, in principle, says farmland is not appropriate for
development of new schools.

But the state's Department of Community Affairs, which operates the
McGreevey administration's Office of Smart Growth, says it's too late
for it to get involved.

"Unfortunately in this case, we were not brought into the process at
the beginning and were, therefore, not involved in a review of this
site," DCA spokesman E.J. Miranda said last week.

He added, however, that the Office of Smart Growth has developed a
new site review process to ensure similar school development projects
meet McGreevey's anti-sprawl objectives.

The preschool is financed by the Schools Construction Corp., or SCC,
an arm of the state's Economic Development Authority, because
Pemberton Township is a special needs district as defined by the
landmark Supreme Court Abbott ruling.

The SCC purchased the site Jan. 15 from an out-of-state land
speculator. It will fully finance and build the school then turn it
over to the local school board.

The school will have 38 classrooms, all equipped with bathrooms, plus
a media center, health clinic, combination cafeteria and auditorium,
and group instruction rooms.

"It's not just a baby-sitting program; it's an actual education
program," said Mark Cowell, the school district's superintendent.

SCC officials say the land would have been sold anyway, meaning it
could have been developed for some other project. More than 45 acres
of the 63-acre site will be preserved, they add.

"The property was available and being marketed and would not have
remained farmland," said Bev Mazzella, a regional project officer for
the SCC.

Mazzella added that residents of small housing developments nearby
need access to a preschool. Another will be built on the other side of
town in the future, she said. New development

Paula Timberlake, 25, lives on Fort Dix Road near the preschool site.
She has sons ages 3 and 4 but is not sure if she'll send them to the
township's preschool program. Timberlake can see where others would.

"It's a big township, and I'm sure that everybody could use it," she
said. "I think the location would be pretty good because it's not in
the heart of everything. To have kids that age, you're better off
being away from it all."

But she is concerned the school could act as a magnet for new
development, which she fears would lead to overcrowding and higher
taxes.

"I really don't think this town needs any more development," she
said.

More development should not be a concern, Cowell said. The district
and SCC are taking steps to prevent potential developers from tying
into an existing sewer main that will need an upgrade and a new water
main that will be constructed, he said.

Although parents are not required to send their children to the
preschool program, the state requires the district provide the
service. Response, Cowell said, has been overwhelming - 900 kids so
far, and a projected 1,100 kids in five years.

"We have to deal with the students we already have. We don't want to
spur more development," he said.

Even though it's far from Browns Mills, the Arney's Mount Road site
is convenient to township residents who work in Cherry Hill, Trenton
and Camden, Cowell added. `So beautiful'

Chris Pettit, 48, leased the land, located just outside the Pinelands
National Reserve, for nearly two decades.

"When they take land like that and build on it, that's less land for
me or another farmer to farm," he said.

"It's a pretty place. I can see the school system wanting it there,"
Pettit said. "I think they think it's a great place for a school.
That's their opinion."

Although the designation offers no specific protections, Burlington
County has named the area an "agricultural development zone." This
means the county believes this is prime farmland that should be
maintained in contiguous tracts and targeted for preservation.

"Arney's Mount is so beautiful. I think our focus should be on
redeveloping our town center (Browns Mills) and improving our ratables
there...instead of destroying farmland," said Councilman Richard
Prickett.

The council and State Agriculture Development Committee raised
questions about the appropriateness of this site for a school last
year.

In November, the council passed a resolution asserting that the
choice of the Arney's Mount Road site is in "direct conflict" with
McGreevey's anti-sprawl initiatives.

But the council reluctantly supported the project. It sought
assurances from the school district that other developments could not
tie into the water and sewer lines.

Eight acres of wetlands will be preserved; another 37 acres will be
preserved through deed restrictions to complement a new agriculture
education program at the nearby Pemberton Township High school.

"We're not trying to generate a new generation of farmers," Cowell
said, "but we are trying to educate students to understand how things
grow, how they propagate." Alternatives

Prickett, who was council president at the time the resolution was
passed, said the district backed the council into a corner by
portraying anyone who questioned the site as being against the needs
of the children.

He also claimed the SCC did not want to listen to other views,
including recommendations that the school be built on other sites.

"We did a lot of work to provide alternative sites and our planner
indicated those other sites were viable," Prickett said.

"I don't think anyone has any other thought in mind but to put the
preschool there," he added. "I do find it unusual that, come hell or
high water, that was the place it was going to go."

In December, the State Agriculture Development Committee found the
project "would cause unreasonably adverse effects" on other farms and
the goal of preserving agriculture. A resolution stated the district
did not address all alternative sites.

Still, the committee pledged to work with the district and SCC to
mitigate those effects through the high school agricultural program
and the deed restrictions.

Opponents wonder just how enforceable the district's assurances could
be, especially those pertaining to water and sewer connections.

"Nobody ever got to the next question - how can you force them to
deed-restrict it, or make access to the water and sewer pipes only
available to the school, and not anybody else. I don't think that's
legal," said Bob Cushmeyer, an airline pilot and president of the
group Pemberton First.

He started the group several years ago to fight a 1,200-unit senior
citizen housing complex and golf course in the area.

But Mazzella said the state Department of Environmental Protection
will include these conditions in a permit. "Yes, it can be restricted
in that way," she said. Key issue

Although a formal development application was never made, the senior
citizens project became the key issue in the 2002 council race,
ushering in candidates, including Prickett, who wanted to see the
Arney's Mount area preserved.

Ironically, eight years ago the state included this area in an Urban
Enterprise Zone, a designation that provides sales-tax breaks and
other incentives to spur economic development. Most enterprise zones
are designated in struggling urban areas.

Cowell, the superintendent, said the district got caught up in the
politics of developing the Arney's Mount area. At the previous
council's direction, the district pursued the Arney's Mount Road site,
only to have the political landscape change, he said.

"The new group came in in January (2003) and didn't pick up the phone
once to tell us they don't want the school there," Cowell said.

He added the battle is over, that construction will begin this year
after a school design is completed.

"I understand (opponents') concerns," Cowell said. "But we're really
not looking for more children. We are addressing the needs that are
already in front of us."

* * *

Reach Lawrence Hajna at (856) 486-2466 or lhajna@courierpostonline.com
Copyright 2004 Courier-Post.