The fourth item on the NJMC's agenda, stuck between a resolution on the commission's quarterly calendar and committee reports, the SAMP - which was once billed either as the salvation of the Meadowlands or its ultimate ruin - became just one more bureaucratic footnote in the area's long history, as the commissioners went on with business.
While the meeting room had its share of visitors, the number was many times fewer than the hundreds that packed these and other chambers during various public hearings held on the issue since its introduction in 1988.
Baykeeper Andy Wilner and Hackensack Riverkeeper Bill Sheehan, the most prominent members of the public to speak on the vote that ended the 14-year-old conflict, came to bury the SAMP, not mourn it. They claimed this was a significantly happy moment in history that should be celebrated.
The Special Area Management Plan, known as the SAMP, was once touted as a plan that would provide for the future of the Meadowlands, a joint agreement between the Meadowlands Commission with state and federal environmental authorities to help manage the remaining wetlands.
The SAMP mapped out the details of this effort over the next 20 years. This plan predicted the construction of thousands of housing units, warehouses, hotels, stores, high tech facilities and the creation of as many as 100,000 jobs in the Meadowlands district. It also spelled out what kind of environmental protection measures would be taken.
The Meadowlands Commission had been established in 1969 to manage various aspects of the Hackensack Watershed. But it found this state mandate in conflict with later federal and state environmental legislation concerning the use and abuse of wetlands, as well as their preservation. After years of legal haggling, these groups got together and hammered out the SAMP, which was supposed to satisfy all the legal ramifications. It was supposed to make everybody happy.
"From 1988 through 1995, the staffs of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission worked diligently to perform field investigation, compile baseline environmental information and prepare a draft environmental impact statement for the Meadowlands SAMP of over 4,000 pages of information," said Bob Ceberio, assistant executive director for the NJMC.
The Meadowlands Commission was created to provide oversight - planning, zoning, environmental protection, and solid waste management - for the area, and since 1969 has worked to restore an area the size of Manhattan to its natural state.
Up until 1987, on the solid waste side, the Meadowlands received nearly 40 percent of the state's trash. That was largely stopped and most of the trash dumps sealed. The streams leading into the river have been cleaned, and a center for environmental research and education established.
But development was a key to much of this progress, and the Meadowlands Commission proposed to allow certain development to provide the area with employment and housing.
The SAMP also would have established a sweeping environmental program including the permanent protection of 7,700 acres of wetlands while enhancing 3,400 acres of disturbed or degraded wetlands. The plan also proposed to seal many of the 27 abandoned landfills, which are currently leaching contaminants into the wetlands.
Money for the $875 million in environmental improvements was expected to come partly from fees to trash haulers run by the Meadowlands Commission and partly from developers' fees in exchange for the rights to build the district area designated by the plan.
A sharp disagreement
For a large part, very few people were satisfied with the plan, and protests over the plan caused sharp divisions between environmentalists, municipal governments, even state and federal legislators. Some developers claimed the plan even favored particular developers over others in future projects slated for the 32-square-mile district.
Environmentalists like Hackensack Riverkeeper Bill Sheehan questioned both the extent of the intended cleanup as well as the effects the new development will have on the wetland process. One basic conflict between Sheehan and the Meadowlands Commission centered on the viability of the Meadowlands as a truly natural environment. In many respects, the Meadowlands Commission managed to convince federal and state authorities that the region is not a self-sustaining environmental resource and that development would not have the wide impact predicted by environmentalists like the Baykeepers. Sheehan and others charged that the Meadowlands Commission's goal was not to maintain an existing wetlands, but to create a "wetlands theme park" to enhance the atmosphere around their proposed commercial projects. Over the last few years, opposition mounted as public officials such as Congressman Steve Rothman (D-9th Dist.) spoke out against SAMP.
"By 2000, it became obvious to many of the staff participants that complete consensus would never be reached," NJMC Assistant Director Bob Ceberio said, noting that the biggest failure was not in the design of SAMP but in the designers' failure to recognize what local constituents in the Meadowlands were saying. Ceberio said up until now none of the SAMP partners were willing to admit how out-of-date SAMP was.
In passing its resolution last week, the NJMC withdrew its support as the local sponsor for the SAMP, spelling its end.
Baykeeper Andy Wilner, in the public portion of Tuesday's meeting, said it was a grass roots effort that helped defeat SAMP, and said that without the combined effort of numerous people, the plan would have been implemented. Wilner, however, acknowledged significant change the Meadowlands Commission has undergone over the last few years.
"I hope this beginning a new era of cooperation," he said.
Sheehan said the passing of the resolution was "an auspicious occasion."
"When I came to the Meadowlands as a small boy I knew it was a special place," he said. "By your passing this resolution, you also acknowledge it as a special place. I never thought we would get to this point. I hope to work with you on developing a new master plan that will help maintain the areas natural and wetland heritage." Review committee named for new Meadowlands master plan
Mayor Dennis Elwell of Secaucus is one of three members of the Hackensack Meadowlands Mayors' Committee assigned to look into details of developing a new master plan for the Meadowlands now that the Special Area Management Plan has been rejected.
Elwell, along the mayors of Ridgefield Park and East Rutherford, will gather information from other municipalities in the Meadowlands district for a review of an upgrade. The last plan for the Meadowlands to be actually implemented by the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission was in 1971.
"This is a great opportunity to have some input into the master plan," Elwell said. "Our committee will include comments and suggestions from all the municipalities in the district." - ADS