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National Treasure For Sale
The New Jersey Palisades are a unique geologic formation along the New Jersey side of the Hudson River across from New York City. Sheer basalt cliffs that rise between 300 and 550 feet above the river, they stretch for nearly 20 miles. In 1983, the Palisades were listed as a National Natural Landmark, a designation that includes iconic places like Mount Shasta in California and Franconia Notch in New Hampshire. The natural beauty and the ecological value of the Palisades are protected by an interstate park that was created cooperatively by New York and New Jersey in 1900 pursuant to an agreement between the governor of New Jersey and the governor of New York-Theodore Roosevelt. Protection of the Palisades was visionary and a gift to future generations from people who understood the value of protecting a resource from degradation.
The Palisades Interstate Park was created to protect the cliffs from quarrying operations. Now the Palisades face a different threat. LG Electronics-the “Life is Good” people who manufacture cell phones and flat screen T.V.s wants to put its new North American headquarters in a 143 foot high office campus in Englewood Cliffs, NJ. The project will undoubtedly bring jobs and economic investment to New Jersey (as well as significant property tax revenue to Englewood Cliffs). The problem is that this proposed building will rise above the tree line and intrude upon the vista that has been protected since the creation of the park and acknowledged as a valuable resource with the designation of the Palisades as a National Landmark. The magnitude of the intrusion into a scenic view is, I suppose, in the eye of the beholder. The import of enabling a governing ethic that embraces squandering protected resources in exchange for questionable short-term gains is not debatable. It is a dangerous and ominous precedent.
Answering The Wrong Questions
There is a great scene in My Cousin Vinny where Vinny is discussing with his girlfriend just what he should wear to go deer hunting. The answer was both priceless and obvious as well as extremely relevant to answering the questions surrounding LG’s proposal. The people in Englewood Cliff are busy discussing how high the new LG headquarters should be or how it should be designed. The correct answer is, who cares! It does not belong there. The arguments over how this building should look or how high it should be are seriously misplaced. It highlights how the battle for local tax revenue leads local officials to become deranged. Instead of asking the basic question-is this the right place for this building-the conversation centers on rationalization and justification to find a way to accommodate a project that was ill-conceived from the start. Most alarmingly, this debate is over how to convey benefits to a small group of people at the expense of compromising something of acknowledged national significance.
It seems to me that the General has his headquarters where his hindquarters ought to be-Abraham Lincoln
There are real questions that need to be asked here. Are there no alternatives? Is the tax revenue to one town more valuable than the integrity of a national landmark? Has anyone involved in the project heard the news that suburban office campuses are a dying non-sustainable model of development? Do we have the political will to insist that economic development take place in an environmentally sustainable manner? Are we capable of viewing investment and development in a more regional fashion and end the destructive competition between communities? Why bring these jobs to a site that is not served by mass transit? Isn’t there a better way to meet LG’s needs, provide jobs and encourage investment in New Jersey without the environmental destruction?
The answer to the last question is easy. While the effort to pound a square peg into a round hole goes on in Englewood Cliffs, 18 miles away Newark, the state’s largest city, sits looking for economic investment. The City has all of the necessary infrastructure in place to support a large corporate headquarters. Its located at the hub of a network of highways. Newark is served by commuter and regional railroads, an international airport, an international seaport and is home to the acclaimed New Jersey Institute of Technology. NJIT’s high-tech campus attracts students and research professors from all over the world. Midtown Manhattan is a 15 minute train ride away. These are all assets that a technology company like LG just might be interested in. They could build their building however high they need it to be-without the need to compromise a national landmark. Yet, for whatever reason, locating this building in a far more appropriate place has never entered the conversation. Municipal and state officials are doing contortions to find a way to enable construction of a new building with absolutely no access to mass transit and that will duplicate countless existing empty corporate campuses that dot (or plague) the suburban landscape. Instead the debate centers on just how much the new headquarters will affect a national treasure. It’s an insane conversation driven by municipal finances. It’s hard to understand why.
If I Ask You To Jump….
Towns will sell their souls for the short buck. Englewood Cliffs is willing to hand the keys to the city to LG to keep them in town along with their tax revenues. They are willing to make a decision that will impact millions of people, affect multiple generations and unravel over a century of conservation policy to protect their parochial interests. Faced with push back, the mayor of Englewood Cliffs stated, “Time is of the essence! I fear if a fair compromise is not reached, LG will leave the state.” This line of reasoning would be laughable if it weren’t so destructive and ridiculous. LG will no doubt complain that the state is unfriendly to business and cite the obstacles to their plans-as if an ill-planned poorly located project was not itself an obstacle-as evidence of a hostile regulatory scheme. Never mind that there are perfectly reasonable and preferable alternatives that would meet their needs. Corporations have only one goal-maximizing their profits-and if they can co-opt a community into assisting with that effort; all the better. Meanwhile local governments will continue to perform tricks in an effort to out compete their neighbors and to please corporations with their promises of dubious rewards.
Protection of the environment and economic development are not mutually exclusive goals. Jobs and economic growth are laudable and necessary aims. However, they do not trump protecting the environment. Finding ways to accommodate and enable investment in a manner, and in places, that minimize environmental impact and encourage sustainable outcomes is achievable. The saga of LG and Englewood Cliffs has a great deal of significance that goes beyond just this incident. Hydraulic fracturing, offshore oil drilling, and real estate deals all over the country pit the public interest against the quests of private and corporate interests to garner benefits, concessions and incentives on a daily basis. The ability of corporations to manipulate outcomes because local officials are susceptible to spurious arguments of economic gain and a reliance on the old rateable chase continues to lead us down an unsustainable path. Maybe it won’t be all that obvious today, but when the time comes that LG cuts a better deal somewhere else and the people of Englewood Cliffs are stuck with an empty office building in a bad location, it might just sink in.
So to the folks fighting the LG project-keep it up! If the mayor is talking compromise and LG is threatening to go elsewhere you must be making some headway. The issues in play here are important beyond Englewood Cliffs or the Palisades. Somewhere there’s a town offering a tax break or a state waiving an environmental regulation for a Super Wal-Mart at the highway exit or a new football stadium for a team that’s threatening to leave town. Somewhere somebody is willing to trade public trust assets for short-term gain. Every time it happens public officials need to be called out. Your efforts might stop the LG project, but more importantly, they might serve as an example to people elsewhere that the fight is worthwhile. Somewhere along the line this way of doing business has to stop and right now is as good a time as any. – Ben Spinelli
It’s been 6 months since my last post here on Politics of the Environment. During that time I’ve been busy working on the President’s Hurricane Sandy Recovery Task Force. I’ve been fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with some of the nation’s leading experts on disaster recovery on some of the most important issues facing our nation today. It has been a tremendous experience.
The Task Force has released its rebuilding strategy document, which you can access here. Please take the time to review this report that discusses the difficult issues facing, not just New Jersey, but all vulnerable coastal areas of the country as we confront a changing climate and rising sea levels. The strategy document addresses, not just how to recover from a disaster like Hurricane Sandy, but how to rebuild in a manner that will reduce or avoid the vulnerability of people, property and infrastructure to the threats of future extreme weather events. It is a thoughtful and comprehensive evaluation of the challenges posed as the Northeast continues the long process of recovery in the wake of Sandy.
Sandy revealed the necessity of improving hazard mitigation efforts to alter how vulnerable coastal
areas of the densely populated northeast are occupied. Long-standing land use patterns have placed
people, property, and infrastructure in locations that have significant risk of flooding and storm surge
and that will become more vulnerable as sea level continues to rise. Municipalities need to build
the capacity and expertise to take the steps necessary to reduce that risk. Hazard mitigation and
risk reduction must be a primary goal of recovery efforts in the region even if fragmented land use
authority and governance make this a difficult proposition.-Page 125 Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Strategy
It has been a privilege to work with my talented and dedicated fellow Task Force members as well as with the scores of public stakeholders who generously gave their time to provide the perspectives and insights that helped shape the strategy document. I am so grateful that I had the chance to be a part of this undertaking. It was also an honor to serve New Jersey and the United States by participating in this important effort. I will continue working with the Task Force until the end of September and will resume posting here then. Until that time I wanted to drop a quick note to bring the Task Force strategy document to the attention of readers of Politics of the Environment. I hope you find the report interesting and informative. I’ll be back in October with plenty to say.- Ben Spinelli
Hello, This Is Your Wake-Up Call
One week after Hurricane Sandy made landfall along the New Jersey coast, I’ve been exiled to the Center City Holiday Inn in Allentown, PA. Back in northwestern New Jersey my home is dark and cold. In rural areas no electricity means no heat, no lights, no water, no phone, no internet access and, since many cell towers in the region were knocked out of commission, there is spotty cell phone coverage at best. Electric wires are lying across the front lawn and the lines from the road to my house are hanging from branches in the woods; pulled from the poles by several of the many large trees that fell or were snapped in half by the storm’s fierce winds. Gas stations are mostly closed and the few that are open have long lines and limited supplies. Getting anywhere is an adventure as roads are blocked by downed trees, fallen wires and broken telephone poles.
So, after six days of finding inventive ways to cook everything that was left in the refrigerator on the barbecue grill, chainsawing my way to the road, sleeping in the cold and flushing the toilet with pots of water from the bathtub, it was time to get out-of-town. The closest available hotel rooms were in the Lehigh Valley in eastern Pennsylvania and a trip to a patch of high ground yielded the cell coverage necessary to make a reservation . We packed the car and headed west leaving our venture into the world of Little House on the Prairie behind. Arriving back in the 21st Century, with T.V., high-speed internet, heat, showers and actual modern plumbing, we were able to find that as difficult as our week had been, Sandy had been much harder on other parts of the region. The stunning video of the damage and the effects on the coastline of New Jersey and even in New York City were sobering.
The havoc and destruction that the nearly 90 mph wind gusts wreaked on inland NJ were mild compared with the effects that were visited upon coastal areas of the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic U.S. by a record storm surge. My home is intact. My family and friends are well. The rainfall in our area was modest, so flooding was not a problem. Eventually, the electric lines will be rebuilt or repaired. I spent Saturday afternoon at a college football game watching Muhlenberg pull out an exciting 24-17 overtime victory over Ursinus. I then went to a nice warm hotel room where I could enjoy what, after a week in the cold and dark, were the modern marvels of a hot shower, television and, free wi-fi internet access. I’m writing from the relative comfort of a hotel room hanging out with utility workers from Ohio and Indiana who have come to help repair the storm’s damage to the power grid. My interaction with Sandy was annoying and distressing, but at its worst, an inconvenience. I was lucky.
I will skip over the technical analysis of the storm. That’s better left for meteorologists and climatologists, you know, the people who actually know what they’re talking about. We do know that record high tidal surges were recorded all along the east coast. The pictures of the Hudson River pouring into the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel in Manhattan or of swaths of shore homes wiped from the barrier islands speak for themselves. The sight of the roller coaster at Seaside Heights, NJ sitting in the ocean will likely be an iconic image for generations. But the real lessons from this storm won’t be found in the damage. They won’t be found in the words of politicians reassuring victims. They won’t be found in the empty arguments of right-wing talk show hosts. The lessons won’t even come from the deaths of over 100 people in the storm’s path. No, the lessons will be in how we react as a society and whether or not we start to take planning for a changing climate, and a changing world, seriously, rationally and intelligently.
History doesn’t repeat itself – at best it sometimes rhymes-Mark Twain
So, what does this have to do with politics and the environment? For starters, we better start paying more attention to reality with our policy-making and less to political considerations. Last week when the long-range forecasts first started showing Sandy making landfall along the New Jersey coast I started writing an article about the last great storm to batter the mid-Atlantic in March 1962. 50 years ago, the Ash Wednesday storm lashed the east coast from North Carolina’s Outer Banks to Maine. Although there was serious damage all along the storm’s path, like Sandy, it reserved its biggest impacts for New Jersey’s barrier islands. However, the 1962 storm was much different in character. That storm was a more typical Nor’easter that sat off the coast and caused onshore winds to drive water landward for three days. This was the mid-Atlantic’s storm of record for over half a century. As it became more and more evident that Sandy, along with its storm surge, would indeed make landfall somewhere along the New Jersey coast I put the article aside to await the actual results. While there are many similarities between the 1962 storm and Sandy, there are also significant differences. Those differences are where we need to direct our attention.
After more than 100 years without a land falling hurricane striking the New Jersey coast, there have now been two in two years. We can quibble that Irene, in 2010, fell to just below hurricane strength before coming ashore or that Sandy may or may have not become extra-tropical just before hitting the coast, but the distinctions are only important to the weathermen. Sea level is at least a half-foot higher along the east coast today than it was in 1962 and it continues to rise at a rate of approximately 3 millimeters per year. Summertime ocean surface temperatures in the Atlantic off the northeast coast are rising and remain warmer into the Autumn months. Increased melting of Arctic sea ice has contributed to warmer Arctic air temperatures and the strengthening of high pressure systems in the far north Atlantic that act as blocks for northward traveling weather systems. Theses blocks force the storm track closer to, or actually back towards the East coast of the United States. The intensity and frequency of storms will continue to increase over historic norms and they will affect populated areas again and again. With the higher sea levels, even storms that in the past were ordinary, will begin to have increased effects on coastal areas. We can have all the political arguments we want about whether or not climate change is occurring or if it is the result of man-made activities. Those disagreements will ultimately be resolved, with certainty, by Mother Nature.
When I get back home and things get settled I will return to this subject for a more detailed analysis. Until then, consider the implications from this event for our policies at the national, state and local levels. Our land use practices, infrastructure investments, and the resiliency or redundancy of the structures we rely upon for our modern society all need to be re-assessed. There are an incredible number of cascading consequences from food supplies to adequate drinking water supplies that we must respond to. One storm drove the most densely populated portion of the nation, and our country’s biggest city, back to the 19th Century in a matter of hours. What will happen next time? (And there will be a next time) Before we even begin to address the root causes of climate change and our answers for them, we need to have a day of reckoning where we acknowledge that something is happening and we need to react. That is how rational and intelligent people respond to challenges. One thing that should be clear however is that both time and our luck have run out. Its time to demand that political leaders respond to the reality that we are facing serious and growing threats that we can no longer afford to ignore or treat as just another political issue. The power to make this change lies with us. It’s high time we used that power.- Ben Spinelli