For 60 years the Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association has been protecting clean water and the environment in central New Jersey. In West Windsor, home to one of our namesake waterways and a drinking water source to thousands — the Millstone River — municipal officials will soon be putting the final touches on a landmark plan designed to rejuvenate the Princeton Junction train station area and provide the sprawling township with the “center” it so desperately wants.
Like so many towns in New Jersey, West Windsor has lost many acres of woods, fields, and farmland to development over the last few decades and is now looking to redevelop previously built up sites as a means to grow without chewing up additional untouched natural resources. A transit-oriented project centered on 350 acres surrounding the Princeton Junction train station, the West Windsor Redevelopment Plan outlines a dense “smart growth” framework for development.
The fundamentals of smart growth are good for people and the environment — by focusing development near existing infrastructure, undeveloped areas with sensitive environmental features and rural character can be preserved.
We are pleased that the redevelopment plan includes specific goals that can potentially accomplish significant environmental improvements and protections for West Windsor, such as:
— Protecting the Millstone River, Little Bear Brook, and sensitive habitats along their banks;
— Preserving the 116-acre mature woodland area between the Millstone River, Little Bear Brook, Route 571, and Northeast Corridor rail line known locally as the Sarnoff Woods;
— Advocating for green building design and concentrated development in a dense core to reduce what is today a sea of asphalt parking, improving stormwater management, reducing flooding and increasing the potential for groundwater recharge to one of New Jersey’s highest-yielding aquifers.
Since taking a seat at the table of the very first workshops exploring the possibilities for this plan, we have advocated for protection of the Millstone River and preservation of the Sarnoff Woods, and are assured our voice has been heard.
However, as the West Windsor Township Council prepares to cast the final votes for the redevelopment plan on Monday, March 23, there is one glaring aspect of the proposal that would turn this “smart” plan into a big problem.
Conceptual maps included in the redevelopment plan show a road starting at Route 571 near the terminus of the new Vaughn Drive and curving northwest through the to-be-preserved Sarnoff Woods. This road appears to stop at the boundary of the redevelopment area, but is clearly intended to resurrect one of the most contentious ideas in West Windsor history — the Penns Neck Bypass.
The bypass, also known as the Millstone Bypass or East Side Connector, was discussed as part of a sequence of road improvements sought to improve traffic flow on Route 1. The Penns Neck Bypass was ultimately omitted from the final 2004 Department of Transportation Penns Neck Area Plan due to the unacceptable environmental damage it would cause to the Millstone River, Little Bear Brook, and associated wetlands, woodlands, and wildlife.
The Watershed Association supported this final plan, which included the removal of traffic lights on Route 1 at Washington Road (Route 571) and Harrison Street, the addition of frontage roads paralleling both sides of Route 1, and provisions for a connector road through the Princeton Junction Train Station area between Alexander Road and Route 571, among other features.
On February 25 U.S. 1 carried an opinion piece from six area mayors encouraging the DOT to make the Penns Neck Area project a funding priority with the anticipation of federal stimulus funds. The Watershed Association certainly does not object to funding a project it applauded five years ago, but we are concerned that despite assurances from several mayors, the bypass, so roundly rejected in 2004, is once again on the table.
Using the redevelopment plan to bring the bypass back to life negates the preservation of the Sarnoff Woods and weakens protection for one of West Windsor’s best natural assets, the Millstone River — two of the strongest environmental principles of the plan.
New roads built over or adjacent to the Millstone River and its tributaries not only threaten one of the region’s largest drinking water sources with pollution, but also destroy surrounding wetlands and exacerbate flooding for nearby homes and businesses.
Don’t let the bypass derail what could be a benefit for the township, residents, and the environment.
Jim Waltman is the executive director of the Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association, which protects clean water and the environment in central New Jersey through conservation, advocacy, science, and education.