Meadowlands become focus of fight over wetlands policy Should U.S. permit some development in damaged natural areas?

September 27, 1998|By Peter G. Gosselin | Peter G. Gosselin,BOSTON GLOBE

CARLSTADT, N.J. - For generations, people traveling up and down the Eastern seaboard have known where to expect the dirtiest, ugliest, most stench-filled stretch of their trips - here in the Meadowlands of northern New Jersy.

Since European settlement of this region three centuries ago, New Yorkers and New Jerseyites have been dumping things they don't want in these soft marshes, creating a mess of almost incomprehensible proportions. For several decades, large swaths of the area were on fire.

But largely unnoticed in recent years, the Meadowlands have begun to come back, and, in a backhanded compliment to their progress, they are now the focus of a fierce battle over whether to bend federal wetlands policy to allow new development, including construction of a huge new mall.

The battle is becoming a flashpoint for one of the big environmental questions of the era: Should the nation permit some development of damaged natural areas, like many of those in the Meadowlands, in return for agreements to save others, or should it insist that all land covered by environmental laws be strictly protected? The answer is of burning interest both to landowners and to environmental activists, and could influence projects from Massachusetts to California.

Model or disaster?

"The Clinton administration touts the Meadowlands as a national model for how to strike a balance between the environment and property rights. But if the development plan that allows the mall goes through, it would be a national disaster," said Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the namesake son of the assassinated New York senator and the chief attorney for the National Alliance of River, Sound and Baykeepers, the group that is spearheading opposition to further Meadowlands development.

"We're told we have all the makings of a tremendous lawsuit if the decision is not in our favor," said Victoria L. Jenkins, an executive with Mills Corp., an Arlington, Va.-based developer that is awaiting federal permits to begin work on a $1 billion mall called Meadowlands Mills. The company wants to build a similar mall in South Weymouth on the South Shore.

"If we can't balance the envionment and development interests in the Meadowlands ... it will be a major setback for preservation efforts across the country," warned Bradley M. Campbell, deputy director of the Council on Environmental Quality, a White House agency that entered the fight earlier this year to try to broker a compromise.

To some, the idea that the Meadowlands is attracting so much attention seems odd. After all, this is a place that was allowed to collect more hazardous-waste sites (three on the high-risk Superfund list), more landfills (27, or about one every square mile) and more serious pollution over the years than almost any similar-sized tract in the nation. To others, the notion that all the hubbub is over a shopping mall is downright laughable.

"Let's face it, we're not talking about virgin land in the middle of Kansas," said Chip Hallock, president of the Commerce and Industry Association of New Jersey, a business trade group. "This is the shopping mall capital of the country."

Perhaps. But at least a few people have begun to dream about a very different future for the Meadowlands and have been encouraged by recent changes in the land. For between the area's parking lots, amid its spaghetti of highway interchanges, alongside its strangely squared-off hills of garbage, herons and egrets have returned, the spartina grass has started to grow again, and the marshes have begun to mend.

"If nothing else, the Meadowlands is a testament to nature's resilience against long odds," said John R. Quinn, a local naturalist and author.

Vantage points

For those driving south out of New England on Interstate 95 across the George Washington Bridge today, the Meadowlands still come as a giant anticlimax, a flat industrial landscape that lets travelers know they have made it past New York but gives them almost no clue about where they have made it to. "A place that people rush past on their way to the rest of America," according to Robert Sullivan, whose recent book, "The Meadowlands," has attracted attention to the terrain.

Biologists consider the area, together with Newark Bay, to be one of the East Coast's great tidal estuaries, as important as the Hudson River and New York harbor. But that's not how the Meadowlands look from behind the wheel on the Jersey Turnpike.

From that vantage point, all that is apparent is a desolate expanse, one that has often been home to strange and not always pleasant occurrences.

In July, when New York heiress Irene Silverman disappeared from her Manhattan townhouse, police were told the prime suspects had been seen driving into the deep reeds of the Meadowlands in Carlstadt. A search failed to produce a body, but did turn up a bag full of fake Social Security cards. Three years ago, officials had to evacuate hundreds of guests from a Meadowlands Days Inn when an industrial yard next door blew up.

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