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CAPE MAY - One of New Jersey’s longest-running civil cases was settled. The Sewell Tract, a large 100-acre natural preserve, was set apart from any future development, even as new home development and property values soar in island resort communities.

Background

It began when a developer purchased 100 acres in East Cape May roughly 60 years ago. Cape May, then anxious for development, pledged to provide utilities.

Delay in movement on the development left the land unused just as the state began to take seriously the environmental protection of wetlands. State regulations on the environment grew stiffer, posing a new problem when the developer, East Cape May Associates (ECMA), sought approvals for developing the tract, finally proposing a 366-home project in 1991. The state blocked the proposal over issues of potential environmental damage.

In 1992, almost 30 years ago, ECMA initiated litigation against the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), claiming the state engaged in a regulatory taking of its property without appropriate compensation.

In the three decades that followed, lawyers and judges changed. City administration came and went, taking various positions for and against the land’s development. 

A settlement appeared imminent in 2009, which would've involved partial development of the tract and included city commitments for infrastructure construction. That settlement failed when  the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, a federal agency, blocked the proposed location of the development.

The fate of the 100-acre parcel was an issue in city politics. It was debated in the 2012 election campaign between then-Mayor Edward Mahaney and challenger Russell Chew. The appropriate position for the city to take regarding the litigation was the subject of numerous discussions at Cape May City Council meetings as recently as 2019 and during the 2020 municipal campaign.

Current Mayor Zack Mullock and Deputy Mayor Stacy Sheehan blocked attempts by Mayor Chuck Lear to have the city contribute funds to Concerned Citizens for Sewell Tract, a nonprofit that joined the litigation as plaintiff-intervenor, with the goal of preserving the entire 100 acres from development. 

Concerned Citizens, formed in 2014 with $133,000 in contributions, has been supported solely through individual contributions throughout its involvement in the case.

Settlement 

The most recent debate among the candidates in the 2020 election represented agreement over the goal of preserving the tract. The disagreement was over how best to position the city to achieve that end.

The November 2020 election brought Mullock and Sheehan into the majority on the council. One of Mullock’s early efforts was to try and use his new official position as mayor to interest the governor’s office in the long struggle over the tract. Several conversations followed. 

When Gov. Phil Murphy attended the city’s Independence Day celebration, it represented another opportunity for a face-to-face discussion on the issue. Mullock credits Murphy with paving the way for a DEP settlement with ECMA.

For years, the DEP resisted a large cash settlement in lieu of any development on the site, even as the financial demands from ECMA came down. Murphy’s interest made it easier for the agency to move to a no-development strategy with a cash settlement. In the end, that settlement was $19 million.

Concerned Citizens also reached out to the governor’s office to build support for a settlement. The ongoing actions of the local nonprofit resisted at every turn any settlement that would involve partial development of the site. They did this as a plaintiff in the case, which placed them on the same side of the case as the developer, who, by now, was seeking a cash settlement.

Now that a settlement has been reached, Concerned Citizens, in a release, stated, “The city previously had chosen not to become a party to the suit and played no role in negotiating its settlement.” 

That release points to the efforts of Concerned Citizens to involve Murphy, noting, “We understand the governor’s office took a serious interest in our request, and that allowed for more time to let settlement negotiations take their positive course.” 

It fails to note city officials' efforts.

Murphy said, “I am grateful to Mayor Zack Mullock and the City of Cape May for their steadfast commitment and impassioned work in support of the preservation of the Sewell Tract.” 

Murphy called the preservation of the tract “a key component in protecting the state from climate change and rising sea levels.”

Concerned Citizens stated what Mullock and Murphy did in different words, noting, “The settlement was a total win for preservation.”

The issue at hand is what happens to the tract? Concerned Citizens stated it “hoped, after the settlement, both the City of Cape May and DEP would take up promptly the topic of planning for the long-term future ofSewell Tract and its environs.” Mullock said he agrees. 

The city controls an additional 10.5 acres adjacent to the tract. Mullock said he would like to see an environmentally appropriate parking lot, observation points and entry points to nature trails. 

To contact Vince Conti, email vconti@cmcherald.com.

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