Thursday, July 20, 2017

State Gathers Public Comment on Proposed ‘Node’ at Eagles Nest Airport (31E), Ocean County, New Jersey

The New Jersey State Planning Commission held a public hearing on Wednesday, June 28, to collect comment on the creation of a new transportation node at Eagles Nest Airport in Eagleswood Township. The airport filed the map amendment application, and the Office for Planning Advocacy gave its preliminary approval; the SPC will make the final determination most likely at its meeting in Trenton in August.

The proposed node would be located on 111 acres, 107 of which are disturbed, in a Coastal Area Facilities Review Act area, zoned for Light Business. The existing designation for the land in question is Planning Area 4 (rural), and the new designation would be Heavy Industry Transportation Utility Node.

Colleen McGurk, from the Office for Planning Advocacy, presented the information and facilitated the hearing, after which airport owner Peter Weidhorn would need to get additional state and local permits, she said.

Weidhorn sat in the front row silently throughout the meeting as resident after resident came forward to ask questions and challenge the airport’s legitimacy and place in the community.

The state Department of Transportation views the airport as having a regional benefit as economic driver and infrastructural facility in a corridor state. A state-mandated goal is to maintain and rehabilitate infrastructure networks, of which currently CAFRA regulations are prohibitive.

The node would allow for improvements relating to a taxiway and resolve outstanding CAFRA issues relating to existing projects that need permits. The airport is limited right now to 30 percent impervious coverage; the node approval would allow up to 80 percent, which is the maximum allowed by the state.

The word “expansion” in the presentation referred to functionality and improvements, McGurk explained. Eagles Nest will bring a site plan before the township land use board after meeting criteria to be CAFRA-compliant, she said.

Eagleswood Volunteer Fire Co. President Tony Cahill raised concerns about Weidhorn’s honesty and accused him of code violations, such as tree-clearing.

Weidhorn said after the meeting, in his defense, he has never done anything at the airport that wasn’t properly permitted. The creation of a node is really a carve-out of properties to exempt them from impervious coverage issues.

Cahill continued that Weidhorn had promised to provide one 55-gallon drum of firefighting foam every two years but so far has delivered only on one. Meanwhile the fire company has spent $1,000 for foam to fight fires from plane crashes. “He’s less than honest with us,” Cahill said.

Sam Zalfa of Cox’s Crossing Road took issue with the ideas of “economic viability” and “quality of life” as they relate to the airport’s closest neighbors. All he knows is he has an “air show” in his backyard, but sees no figures, documentation or other evidence of the millions of dollars reportedly generated by the airport, he said.

Margit Meissner-Jackson spoke on behalf of nearby senior citizens: “We don’t want it. We want a rural, small area here. That’s what we came here for.” Everything was working fine before the airport was developed, she said. Emergency helicopters would land at the firehouse.

Save Barnegat Bay’s Brita Wenzel was in attendance as a concerned party for Westecunk Creek, which is supported by Green Acres funds. The state Department of Environmental Protection has determined there were no threatened or endangered species in the acreage of the proposed node, where the environmental sensitivity has already been reduced. Gail Zalfa said what about the pine snakes, and McGurk said any nearby pine snakes, sensing activity that might be unsafe for them, would likely avoid the airport on their own.

Zalfa said he wants a projection of the airport’s economic benefit to the town, not the $17.9 million reported to go to the region. “Why doesn’t anyone ever give us anything concrete after they say it? What is it based on?”

Weidhorn said afterward the DOT conducts periodic economic impact studies of all 47 airports to compile actuarial data. The numbers are very easy to misconstrue, he said. The point is money gets spent in the community.

Little Egg Harbor Tax Assessor Ed Seeger explained improvements can affect ratables, adding to the tax base, while not necessarily adding to home values.

So homeowners absorb the hit to their property values for others’ gain? Zalfa asked. “Who can eat the mumbo jumbo that it’s good for everybody?”

Residents can file appeals, Seeger said. Though it’s not an inexpensive route, after appraisal and filing fees, residents have the right to file an appeal with the state tax court in Trenton to reassess any other property.

“Every airport depresses the neighborhood around it,” Michele Paccione of Laurel Hill Lane said. “Woodstock (housing development) has lost 50 percent of the value of their homes. Homes are our largest investment in life.”

Weidhorn lives over 100 miles away and profits from the airport while Eagleswood residents suffer, Paccione said. “How do you weigh his benefit against ours?”

“I understand proximity to the airport may be detrimental,” McGurk said. The state looks at the regional benefit; Eagles Nest is a privately owned airport that does have some public use, she said. The proposed node would merely improve airport function.

Cahill said the residents would have to fight the airport at the state level.

Tanglewood resident and former land use board member Patrick Filardi said the next step at the local level would be to rescind the airport’s resolutions.

Paccione said the problem is the town officials unanimously approve everything.

The state will take written comments and questions sent to the following physical and email addresses: N.J. Dept. of State, Office of Planning Advocacy, 33 West State St., P.O. Box 820, Trenton, N.J. 08625;

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