N.J. Panel to Review State Land Leasing Policy

New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Commissioner Bob Martin has created a panel to recommend ways to overhaul the state's process of leasing property to private companies that run pipelines, cables, electric lines and towers across state-owned land and water.

The panel, which will include representatives of DEP, Treasurer's Office, Board of Public Utilities, Economic Development Authority and New Jersey Highlands Council, will examine how lease agreements are structured and created. It will develop and recommend a new leasing formula that will treat all companies that do business with the state fairly and equally, while getting the best deals for taxpayers. Martin has asked the panel, which is chaired by Ben Witherell, DEP's director of Economic Analysis, to make its recommendations later this year.

"This process is broken. In some cases, over the last few decades, it seems leases were crafted without a consistent and logical determination, and the state has not even kept accurate records of all the lease transactions," Martin said. "It's time to change that system, to bring it up to date, to develop a better process that will result in proper payments to the state for use of its land, providing the best deals for the people of New Jersey.''

Martin said the issue of leases caught his attention recently in connection with the Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co.'s proposal to run a new utility line along its already existing 45-mile natural gas right of way, including state-owned land, in the North Jersey Highlands.

The current system of developing leases, Commissioner Martin said, may not fully account for the unique value of preserved lands, including the disturbance of plant and animal habitats, disruption of conservation efforts, loss of recreational value, and protection of air and water resources.

DEP owns 800,000 acres of parkland, wildlife refuges and other open spaces that are crisscrossed in many areas by utility lines. In many instances, there is minimal payment derived from outdated and sometimes expired agreements. A thorough inventory and cataloguing of DEP land agreements will be part of the panel's review process.

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