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Landowners Prepare to Develop New Jersey Woods

Plan would create 20,000 jobs and 14,000 housing units

TIME is running out on efforts to save one of the largest remaining tracts of private forest close to a major city. On March 27 a final plan for the development of Sterling Forest, a 27-square-mile area just 40 miles northwest of New York City, will be announced.

Owners of the forest say the development involves only one-fourth of the total land and puts a premium on preserving the environment.

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Conservationists say the woodlands are irreplaceable and that any further development there would be a tragedy.

New York voters' rejection last fall of a proposed state environmental bond issue, which included $800 million for land acquisition, has shifted most of the hopes for a potential rescue to the federal level.

A US Forest Service study, recently launched at Congress's request, is looking at ways to protect Sterling Forest and other nearby open space. A preliminary report is due by fall.

Would Congress ever consider purchasing Sterling Forest? "It's not impossible," says Rep. Robert Torricelli (D) of New Jersey, adding that the governors of New York and New Jersey would probably both need to take a strong leadership position on the issue first. "There is a sense in Congress, that this is genuinely the last chance for any large-scale land preservation in the major metropolitan area," he adds.

Owners of Sterling Forest insist the new plan involves a comprehensive look at the whole property. "We've long said that the absolute worst thing they could do was subdivide the forest and sell or develop pieces of it in a haphazard way," notes Regional Plan Association analyst Robert Pirani.

The plan builds not only on knowledge gained from visits to many planned communities in the US and Europe but also from citizen comments during some 35 public hearings on the subject.

The planned compact retail, office, and housing development will add some 20,000 jobs to the region.

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Beyond the added cost of extra services required, the development will generate a net surplus to the area of $36 million a year in taxes and other revenue, owners say. They hope to reduce air pollution and energy use by a heavy reliance on jitney service rather than cars. More hiking trails are to be added.

"Open space is the prime amenity," insists Sterling Forest Corporation chairman Robert Thomson. "What we propose is ... the most environmentally sensitive use of this property in total that could be made."

He gets no quarrel on that point from John Humbach, chairman of the Sterling Forest Coalition, an organization of environmental groups.

"I think their proposals are beautiful development proposals. The question is not whether Sterling Forest should be developed sensitively. The question is whether it should be developed at all. There are lots of alternative locations [for development]. There's only one Sterling Forest. There just isn't another 18,000-acre expanse of natural woodland in private hands that close to Manhattan. It's a unique asset," he says.

In Mr. Thomson's view, the planned compact new development has been so well thought through that it is likely to become a model for planned communities of the future. "I think we're on the cutting edge," he says.

He says that studies show that Orange County, N.Y., where much of the forest lies, is expected to take on as many as 50,000 more housing units anyway over the next 20 years.

By placing up to 14,000 of those units in the forest, Thomson says that good use can be made of a water supply and sewage-treatment facilities already in place.

The plan still needs the approval of a number of government zoning and environmental bodies and the owners say they don't expect to finish building for another 25 or 30 years.

Yet the Sterling Forest Corporation, whose parent organization was recently bought by a Swedish firm, remains open to a governmental purchase if well enough funded. "We are absolutely open to acquisition of substantial portions or all of the property," says Thomson.

Passaic County, N.J., which depends on watersheds in the forest for much of its drinking water, two years ago condemned and took the 2,000 acres of the forest that lie within its boundaries. The price is still being litigated in the courts.

Representative Torricelli says he thinks New Jersey has done what it can and that he understands New York's tight budget situation. However, like Mr. Humbach, he contends that there is no shortage of other locations available to developers near forests and lakes in New York and New Jersey. Sterling Forest's location is strategic, he says, and its development would have dire consequences for both the environment and the economy.

"There simply is not going to be the water accumulation to feed our reservoirs," he says. "If this land is developed, there is going to be a limited water capacity for increased economic development in New Jersey and New York ... it's going to put a limit on growth."

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