MOUNT OLIVE, N.J. — A MULTINATIONAL chemical company's plans to build part of its new headquarters on New Jersey state park land has raised concern among environmentalists that the state's economic needs are being put ahead of the sanctity of public land. The controversy centers on 58 acres of hardwood forest that are now part of the 7,000-acre Allamuchy State Park in northwestern New Jersey, the nation's most densely populated state.
The 58-acre parcel, just 44 miles west of New York City, was acquired by the state in 1971 after voters approved a ``Green Acres'' bond issue, which gave the state park system millions of dollars to acquire land facing development. Over the last 29 years, such bond issues have enabled the state to acquire 209,000 acres of land at a cost of more than $1 billion.
West German-based BASF AG, one of the world's largest chemical companies, last November announced its intention to relocate its North American headquarters. It planned to move from its current rented space to the nearby International Trade Center Office Park (ITC) in Mount Olive, which adjoins the 58-acre tract.
But there was one catch.
The largest contiguous tract of land available in the office park was some 100 acres, was not big enough for BASF's needs.
A land swap was proposed. The ITC would acquire the 58 acres of state parkland, and in return would give New Jersey 67 acres of wetlands the ITC owns on the Musconetcong River, in addition to a cash payment.
The seven-member State House Commission, chaired by the governor, approved the swap last Sept. 19.
Christopher Daggett, who was then commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), wrote a letter to the commission endorsing the swap. He noted that New Jersey was in competition with Georgia for the BASF North American headquarters and said the benefit of keeping 1,600 jobs in the state - with a future potential of up to to 3,300 jobs - merited approval of the land swap.
The State House Commission approved the move without a public hearing because one was not required by state law.
The swap angers environmentalists in a state where suburban sprawl has been rampant.
``The land transfer is a violation of the public trust,'' says Judy Keenan, natural resources director of the New Jersey Chapter of the League of Women Voters. ``People vote for these Green Acre bond issues with the impression the land being acquired is going to be forever green. What the state is now saying is none of our parkland is sacred.''
On July 3, after months of protest over the land swap by the League of Women Voters and environmental groups, New Jersey's new DEP commissioner, Judith Yaskin, announced that a review of the matter had determined that the land swap was economically unfair to the state.
Ms. Yaskin, who took office under the administration of Gov. James Florio, urged the State House Commission to renegotiate the deal with the ITC.
The State House Commission has scheduled a meeting for Friday to make final determinations on the matter.
As part of a high stakes public relations campaign, the Rockefeller Group, one of the developers of the site, hired a number of paid expert witnesses including Russell Dickenson, former director of the National Park Service, and John Gordon, dean of the Yale School of Forestry and the Environment.
Dean Gordon told state officials that the ITC land tract was more desirable than the tract the state was giving up.
Gordon called the 58-acre state tract ``pleasant woodland,'' but said it had no outstanding cultural or natural features. He said the parcel along the Musconetcong River offers ``a unique ecological resource,'' and would provide trout steam access along a mile stretch of the Musconetcong River.
But William Neil, assistant conservation director for the New Jersey Audubon Society, maintains that most of the ITC tract would be preserved regardless, because it has high slopes or is protected under wetlands protection laws. Mr. Neil said New Jersey has already lost too much forest land to development.
Marie Curtis, who works for the New Jersey Environmental Lobby, says she is not against helping New Jersey's economy, but finds it hard to believe BASF could not find another 150-acre tract for its headquarters somewhere else in New Jersey.
Vince Silvestri, a spokesman for the Rockefeller Group, says BASF officials told ITC and state officials last year that they were prepared to move to Atlanta if the ITC land deal fell through. But Barbara Morgan, a spokeswoman for Georgia Gov. Joe Frank Harris, says BASF officials were never seriously interested in his state.
``We never had a concrete proposal,'' she says. ``There was only some preliminary interest.''
Charles Coe, director of communications for the North American operations of BASF, refused comment.
Neil feels New Jersey is selling off the parkland at ``bargain basement prices.''
The original contract between the ITC and New Jersey called for the state to receive a cash payment of $300,000 in addition to the ITC parcel of 67.5 acres.
Waterloo Village, a historic restoration that leases the 58 acre tract, would have received $4.7 million from the ITC for the buyout of its lease 12 years early.
Recent appraisals of the 58-acre state park tract commissioned by the DEP says the state land is worth $4.75 million undeveloped and more than $14.5 million developed.
But Neil estimates the 58-acre state tract is worth between $25 million and $33 million. He says the current assessment underestimated the amount of buildable space on the tract.
On July 20, ITC officials released a revised proposal for the land swap. The ITC offered to pay New Jersey $5 million and add five more acres of land - which will be improved to allow public access - to the original 67 offered to the state. ITC will negotiate a separate deal with Waterloo Village for the termination of its lease.
As expected, Yaskin sent a letter to the State House Commission endorsing the new proposal and recommending the commission's approval.
The commission is expected to follow her July 26 recommendation, but first must reject the old agreement.
John Hagerty, a spokesman for the New Jersey DEP, says Yaskin's reasons for recommending the new deal are that the new price is fair, the state is getting a good tract of land in return, and the deal will help New Jersey's economy.
Yaskin has also proposed new rules that would require the State House Commission to hold a public hearing before any swap or sale of state parkland. But Ms. Keenan says going through with the land swap is a mistake.
``Voters may be reluctant to vote for future Green Acres bond issues,'' she says. ``The state is sending voters a message that for the right price, parkland is for sale.''