Fight over Andover train station heats up

| 22 Mar 2017 | 01:14

Approvals, permits and progress are finally being made on the Lackawanna Cut-off Passenger Rail Service Project — a project that has been in the works for years — except for the Andover station section.
The plan is to restore 7.3 miles of track between the Port Morris rail yards and Andover Township connecting the NJ Transit's Morris & Essex lines at Port Morris, with the first 4.25 miles of track already installed on the former Lackawanna Cutoff. The Department of Environmental Protection says a permit is needed to upgrade a culvert — a tunnel carrying a stream or open drain under a road or railroad — which goes under a driveway and past a barn at the privately-owned Hudson Farm property across from where the Andover station is planned.
According to Andover Township Mayor Tom Walsh, the culvert needs to be upgraded to withstand a “100-Year-Storm,” however the landowner of the property is refusing to comply. To try and clear this last hurdle, the Township Committee recently approved an ordinance allowing the town to go to court in order to gain eminent domain of the property. Walsh said the township is currently trying to work with the DEP to avoid going to court.
The property owner, A.I.T. Reinsurance, is a company founded by billionaire businessman Peter Kellogg, who owns the Hudson Farm property located over about 3,800 acres in Andover Township, Byram Township and Hopatcong Borough. While the area is not under the Highlands Act, both Ursin and the New Jersey Sierra Club say that the area planned for the train station is an environmentally sensitive flood zone and protected by the DEP from development.
According to Walsh, the problem is that different parts of the DEP are doing different things, “a left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing” situation. One arm of the the DEP is requesting permission to work on the culvert, another arm has spent $1.8 million putting environmental restrictions on the property to restrict development, and another arm is picking out artwork for the Andover station.
“So that’s why we’re stepping in and saying, ‘well maybe we’ll have to be the adult in the room condemn it so we can work on it,’ and then give it right back to them,” Walsh said. “We’ll do eminent domain, get the DEP work on it, give it right back to the people. That way it’s set for a 100-Year-Storm and if it's in a floodplain, it would be doing him a favor.”
John Ursin, attorney for A.I.T. Reinsurance, said that since the property is in a flood zone and that the area around the proposed train station location are protected, that the property is not a good place for the train station.
“The fact that it’s in a flood zone has forced NJ Transit to find a solution to deal with the flood water and the proposal is to armor the culvert on our property to back up the flood water on our property and that’s fundamentally unfair,” Ursin said. “Why should our property be burdened with that flood water simply because you picked a location for the train station in a flood zone?”
He also objects to the use of eminent domain to gain the property, which Ursin said should only be reserved for public projects that have a big benefit to the public, which he said this project is not — from a tax basis — since the property currently cannot be developed. He also said that NJ Transit only estimates 20 of the 50 parking spots will be used at the station, so it is not widely beneficial.
The Sierra Club also thinks the project does not benefit the public and that the area is unsuitable for a train station. In a recent statement, the NJ Sierra Club criticized Andover Township for passing the recent ordinance.
“Andover Twp. sided with destruction of the environment over protecting critical streams by unanimously approving legal action to build this train station,” said Director of the NJ Sierra Club Jeff Tittel. “This Lackawanna cutoff project is really about taking care of developers in order to promote sprawl without benefiting commuters. This station is unneeded, will do a lot of environmental damage, and eminent domain should not be used to build the culvert. Andover approved all of this destruction when there is not enough demand for this rail line in Sussex County.
“This is clearly a bad project being proposed as an excuse to increase development and sprawl in environmentally sensitive areas,” Tittel continued. “Instead of protecting a flood zone near threatened and endangered species habitat, the town has voted to try to build a train station. Along the proposed route of this extension there are vernal pools and wetlands making this a threat to our aquifers and clean water. This means in the next storm all of the money spent on this project will be washed away.”
Walsh, who works as a painter, said that the project will benefit the public, and that he gets asked multiple times a day about the train station. He said people tell him that the station would be a boon to this county and the area.
Not only would it benefit those who work in the New York City metro area, he said, but socially, residents could go to sports games.
“It would make it an area... where people can get on the train and go and see a play and get back,” Walsh said. “It raises the quality of life for everybody in the area.”