To the Editor:
We were sorry to see Vince Conti’s recent article in your newspaper, “Sewell Tract Remains Intact After 30 Years,” miss its mark so badly. Unfortunately, the piece is replete with factual errors that easily could have been checked before publication. Moreover, it promotes misinformation being circulated by the current Cape May mayor that he played a key role in bringing about the final settlement of the longstanding Sewell Tract litigation. In fact, his impact up to year-end 2020 was negative, and after that it was negligible.
To begin, Concerned Citizens, the party serving as plaintiff intervenor in the suit, and which was instrumental in its successful outcome, was formally incorporated in July 2014, not 2015. It had been hard at work on its mission to preserve Sewell Tract for at least a year before Mr. Conti seems to have realized. In fact, Concerned Citizens’ formal organization followed groundwork opposition its principals had laid to Sewell Tract development in 2012 and 2013 through interchanges with the NJDEP and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Moreover, and inexplicably, Mr. Conti’s article focuses on only $133,000 of contributions Concerned Citizens received from donors in 2015 when, in fact, during the seven years of its activities, Concerned Citizens has raised upwards of $500,000 of private donor funds. All those facts Mr. Conti could have verified with us, but never did.
From that point, Mr. Conti builds on a false narrative that Cape May Mayor Zack Mullock had “several (undocumented) conversations with Gov. Murphy during 2021 which “made it easier for the (NJDEP) to move toward a no-development strategy with a cash settlement... (of) $19 million.” What Mr. Conti fails to acknowledge, or perhaps even understand, was that the $19.0 million settlement consummated last month actually had been agreed upon by the litigating parties before the end of 2020 (when Mr. Mullock was not yet mayor) and was signed in February 2021, long before any contact Mr. Mullock may have had with Murphy. In fact, our correspondence of October 2020 directly with the governor’s office (while Mr. Mullock sat on City Council opposing our efforts) was the actual event that helped motivate the NJDEP to come to the bargaining table. To confirm how peripheral the current city administration was to the settlement, it is clear that Mr. Mullock was unaware that it had been completed, or even the amount of the settlement, at the time it was publicly announced by Concerned Citizens Aug. 17. Had he been so, undoubtedly, he would have touted it at that evening’s City Council meeting.
Finally, Mr. Conti confirms his underlying bias when he asserts erroneously that Concerned Citizens “fails to note city officials’ efforts.” Actually, Mr. Conti simply chose to ignore which city officials Concerned Citizens had commended publicly for praise - namely, those that supported our efforts from 2016 through 2020 with real policy enactments promoting Sewell Tract preservation and whose attempts to assist us financially were stymied for two years by Mr. Mullock’s unwavering opposition. In our book, you don’t spend two years criticizing and blocking efforts to preserve Sewell Tract, then schmooze with the governor over the Fourth of July this year, and expect to get much credit for saving Sewell Tract.
It seems to have eluded Mr. Conti, a veteran journalist, that the reality of the Sewell Tract outcome is much more important than the spin. With community recognition being given so widely to Concerned Citizens for the Sewell Tract result, the public must question why the Herald would go out of its way to promote such a false and unsupportable narrative.
ED. NOTE: Testa, president, Concerned Citizens for Sewell Tract Preservation, states the organization was formally incorporated in July 2014. The Herald used the initial 2015 tax filing in referencing the start of the organization because 2015 was the fiscal year of the filing. That fiscal year ran from Aug. 1, 2014, to July 31, 2015. We corrected the story online to reflect the 2014 date. We stand by the information in the rest of the story.