Ocean County Politics

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Appellate Court Sides With Lacey Township in Hotly Contested Rail Trail Legal Battle

TRENTON – A New Jersey Superior Court appellate panel has this week rejected a challenge by environmentalists to a 2014 CAFRA permit authorizing the construction of a 1.9 mile bypass road in Lacey, the latest development in the Lacey Rail Trail legal saga.

The Lacey Rail Trail case has often polarized township politics and has often been an issue at the center of litigation. Now, after a lengthy legal battle, the Appellate Division of the Superior Court has come down on the side of Lacey Township officials, rejecting arguments made by the Lacey Rail Trail Environmental Committee, Save Barnegat Bay, and the American Littoral Society against the legality of a permit issued to construct a bypass road in the township.

At issue was a 2014 permit issued under the state Coastal Area Facilities Review Act (CAFRA) that permitted Lacey to construct a 1.9 mile bypass road within the former Barnegat Branch Railroad right of way. According to the written court ruling, the permit covered “The proposal for the new road, designated as Railroad Avenue, included two vehicle lanes, with an additional right-turn lane at one intersection, and a pedestrian and bike path, separated from the roadway by a two-foot landscaped buffer.”

The environmental groups contended that the state Department of Environmental Protection’s decision to issue the permit despite past rejections, and that the DEP’s findings were not supported by past evidence, and that the proposal does not comply with CAFRA regulations, among other things. All of these contentions were rejected by the appeals court.

“We conclude that the DEP satisfied its obligation to explain its reasons for granting Lacey the CAFRA permit in 2014 when it had previously denied similar applications,” a three-judge appellate panel ruled. “Contrary to appellants’ argument, the DEP was not required to expressly rebut its previous findings, but had to consider the most recent application anew and provide an adequate explanation for its findings with respect to the specific application.”

Immediately following the Wednesday ruling, environmental groups criticized the decision. 

“We believe the Court was wrong in this decision because the DEP gave out permits they didn’t have the right to give out, which violated the rules and laws,”said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “The Appellate Division, however, too many times is a rubberstamp for state agencies because they have presumption of validity. We believe the DEP was wrong to approve this road because this project will threaten a popular recreational trail that is environmentally sensitive as well as impact important habitats and species.”

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