A year of protests by local residents and environmentalists wasn’t enough to deter the Jackson, New Jersey, planning board from granting permission to the Six Flags Great Adventure amusement park to install a field of solar panels — a project that will require loggers to fell 15,000 trees on the property.
The Asbury Park Press said in an online story that after nine public hearings and 30 hours of testimony, the city approved plans on March 23 to clearcut the site of the future photovoltaic facility.
The amusement park originally planned to clear 90 acres of trees for the solar farm, but later scaled the plans back to 66 acres.
A half-dozen environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, Save Barnegat Bay, and the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, had opposed the project, along with people who live nearby.
“I’m very much in favor of solar panels, but not at the expense of the nature we’re trying to save,” resident Linda McHale told the newspaper in February. “We have a beautiful habitat here. What’s the reason we would let it go — because somebody wants to build solar panels?”
A crowd of nearly 50 people gathered for the planning board vote, many of them wearing stickers that said, “Don’t kill the Earth to save it.” Sierra Club of New Jersey Executive Director Jeff Tittel said that the planned facility “gives green energy a black eye.”
“You have to have the right project and the right site,” he said. “This was the right project but the wrong site.”
The photovoltaic facility will consist mostly of ground-mounted panels, with some mounted on canopies over employee parking areas. Critics had wanted the amusement park to install all the panels on canopies over an adjacent 100-acre parking lot so that trees would not have to be removed, but park managers said that wasn’t practical.
It’s not over yet
Six Flags Great Adventure President John Fitzgerald said in an earlier interview that the solar farm would generate virtually all of the electricity the park uses, and would reduce carbon emissions by nearly 226,000 tons over a 15-year period. He said that was nearly 24 times the carbon dioxide the forest would be capable of removing, according to the newspaper.
In addition, Fitzgerald said that the amusement park would plant nearly 26,000 trees elsewhere on the property over a seven-year stretch.
“This actually helps reduce the carbon footprint of humanity in the park,” he said. “And the trees — we’re replanting the trees. Now, it may take a few years for those trees to come on line, but eventually they will, so how can it not be a net gain for the environment?”
But the argument didn’t hold much water with environmental activists. Four environmental groups filed suit last May to block the plan, and hearings have been marked by shouting matches between town officials and an attorney representing environmentalists.
Things got testy at the most recent planning board meeting when the attorney for the amusement park accused opponents of wanting too much and bending too little.
“It is never enough with these organizations because it seems to me it’s either their way or the highway,” the newspaper quoted attorney Raymond Shea as saying.
The lawsuit is apparently still pending, and one environmentalist complained that they’d have to make the same arguments all over again.
“The planning board was in the pocket of the developer from day one,” said Clean Water Action campaign director David Pringle. “They had more than enough discretion to vote no and we think they violated their own ordinances. We’ll be here again unless they wise up because the courts are going to tell them they did it wrong.”
In giving approval to the plan, the town imposed five conditions, including requirements that a biologist be on site during the tree cutting, the solar company use the highest grade of solar panel available, and that Six Flags place $150,000 in escrow for tree removal fees.