Emerson Woods Preserve (A Forest, Wetland & Wildlife Haven)
The Emerson Woods Preserve consists of 19.38 acres of deciduous forest and wetlands located in the borough of Emerson NJ. The preserve is surrounded by over a hundred acres of United Water watershed land. The perimeter of the preserve is within 683 feet of the Oradell Reservoir which provides water to about 750,000 residents of North Jersey.
Originally farmland, the land which is now the Emerson Woods Preserve was purchased in the early 1900’s by the Hackensack Water Company (now United Water Resources) as watershed buffer land for the newly created Oradell Reservoir. In the early 1920’s and 1930’s the fields converted into forest via natural succession. By the 1950’s the land was completely reforested. The property was slated for development by a subsidiary of United Water, United Properties Group.
The Emerson Woods Preserve was purchased by the borough from United Properties Group after a lengthy campaign with assistance from Bergen County Open Space Trust Fund and NJ DEP Green Acres in December of 2001 for $7.8 million dollars.
History of Purchase
The Emerson Woods Preserve is the last major open space remaining in the borough of Emerson. In the 1980’s, after a severe drought, United Water transferred hundreds of watershed acres including the Emerson Woods Preserve to its subsidiary United Properties Group (UPG) which wished to develop these properties. Environmental groups such as Bergen SWAN sued resulting in a 1993 settlement in which 650 acres of woods, wetlands and golf courses were preserved. 225 acres including what would become the Emerson Woods Preserve were allowed to be developed. In 1996, an application for a 150 townhouse development was proposed for the 19.38 acre Emerson Woods. The current zoning for the location of Emerson Woods allowed for development only on 100 acres or more. United Properties pressed the planning board to permit a zoning change. The planning board initially agreed and passed to the borough council. Shortly after the land referendum was held, and despite the majority of voters backing the preservation, the council voted 3-1 to introduce a zoning ordinance in United Property’s favor. UPG was threatening to sue the borough as the zoning issue had remained unresolved for almost two years. Borough officials stated that denying UPG the zoning ordinance would have resulted in a costly lawsuit. The question of if the zoning change would raise the value of the land lingered.
Opponents of the development stated in addition to watershed buffer and wildlife habitat being destroyed, the development would require heavy dependence on roads, schools and municipal services. In 1997, borough officials held a non-binding referendum (meaning the borough is not under obligation to purchase the land regardless of the referendum results) regarding purchasing the property as open space with taxpayer funds. The referendum included six questions with five featuring different tax increases that would be acceptable and the sixth rejecting the purchase. The borough council stated that it would likely heed to public response regarding preservation but ultimately would depend on how much the land would cost. The property was appraised at $4.5 million.
Shortly before the referendum was held, the council withdrew its plans to apply for green acres funding to the dismay of environmentalists. Green acres would fund up to 25% whereas the remaining 75% would be a loan which would be paid back with 2% interest. Officials stated the green acres application was withdrawn so as not to influence voters. Citizens urged the council to revive the application to help preserve the land. The council stated that any application to green acres would be completed after the referendum was held.
The results indicated that the majority of voters agreed to a $135 annual tax increase in the event the borough purchased the woods. 389 voted to pay $200 in taxes, 304 voted to pay $150, 373 voted to pay $100, 195 voted to pay $50 and 201 voted to pay nothing. The council agreed to reapply for green acres funding.
Residents suspected the council used the zoning issue as leverage on almost $2 million in tax appeals which were filed by UPG and UWR since 1992 and filed a lawsuit. The objective of the lawsuit was to seek a temporary injunction which would prevent the ordinance from taking effect until the validity could be determined in a court of law. The lawsuit was later dropped due to a superior court judge dismissing most of the suit.
However, environmental groups Bergen SWAN and Environmental Defense Fund threatened a new lawsuit stating the development would damage the surrounding watershed. UPG stated it would use watershed land already protected during the 1993 settlement in order to bring the development into compliance with state wetland laws. Environmental groups stated that the NJ DEP permit if approved would allow UPG to build within the 50 foot buffer zone the law requires around wetlands. In response UPG stated that the development would help prevent the flow of road chemicals, dirt and other pollutants from reaching the Oradell Reservoir. Environment groups state that the UPG data is flawed and that the development would increase the threat of pollution. Apgar association hired by the environmental groups stated that the UPG engineers underestimated the rate of pollutants leaving the development because the wrong formula was used to calculate the flow.
In addition, a council election in Emerson shifted the majority from those who supported the development to those who were against it. The mayor however stated that purchasing the land was too costly to let it sit fallow while developing it would bring $500,000 in tax revenues. UPG was unconcerned about the change in council and stated it already had Emerson’s planning board approval for its blueprints. Environment groups pointed out that the DEP had required significant revisions to the blueprints in order to prevent construction near wetlands and that the blueprints would need to be reviewed by the planning board.
Meanwhile the Garden State Preservation Trust Fund approved funding for the preservation of Emerson Woods. This meant that Emerson would receive $1.25 million grant and a $750,000 loan. Green Acres stated it would provide $2 million. These grants and loans still fell short of what may be needed to purchase the land by an estimated $3-$7 million. The money was seen as a vital first step to acquiring the land. Emerson also applied for Bergen County’s open space trust fund and was approved for $2.93 million. Given the then recent flooding caused by tropical storm Floyd, the county’s priority focused on protecting land around watersheds. What remained to be seen was if UPG was willing to sell the land to the borough. If it denied the borough, Emerson could move to condemn the land.
Shortly after the announcement of the grants the borough council rejected a proposed agreement with UPG because a new draft was submitted with revised blueprints. The council needed time to examine the documents. The revised blueprints reduced the number of townhouses in order to comply with DEP regulations regarding building near wetlands. Emerson council ordered UPG to draft a new developer’s agreement. The agreement specifies terms the developer agrees to in exchange for approval such as affordable housing. In light of the developer’s agreement, UPG doubled what it was offering to help Emerson pay its affordable housing obligations.
A vote was held on an ordinance in which Emerson will offer UPG $4.5 million for the woods and launch condemnation proceedings if the offer is rejected by UPG. The preservation resolution initially passed in April 2000. The council voted 4-1 on the ordinance to buy the property from UPG. Shortly after, United Water was ready to leave the real estate business and was willing to talk to Emerson to work out a suitable solution. The council of Emerson and UPG came to an agreement where the borough would pay $7.8 million for the property. The Borough Council voted 4-0 to save the woods. The council agreed to pay almost 3 million more because the development would have cost the town more money in services such as extra police, more schools etc.
Emerson Woods Preserve features an excellent self-guided nature trail which highlights flora found throughout the forest and the surrounding watershed land through the use of 18 markers.
A kiosk may be found near the southern entrance of the trail near Lakeview Terrace. The kiosk contains pamphlets which describe the 18 markers in detail.
A vernal pond is located east of the main trail and may be accessed by a short pond overlook trail off the main trail. The pond (which is created by melting snow and spring rains) provides critical breeding habitat for amphibians such as salamanders and frogs. The pond is usually dry by summer and does not support aquatic life which would feast upon the eggs of the amphibians. Buttonbush, which can reach up to ten feet in height, is found near the vernal pond. Mallards and Wood Ducks eat the seed heads the Buttonbush produce. Its clusters of white flowers bloom in early to mid summer and are a source of nectar for butterflies and bees. Canada Mayflower (which consists of a carpet of leaves which blooms white flowers in May) and Swamp Smartweed (pinkish flowers on spikes which grow to 30 inches tall in mid to late summer) are also found near the pond overlook trail.
As of 2011, Bergen SWAN is planning a reroute for the narrow ditch trail which crosses the main trail near the small concrete bridge. The ditch, (known as Heck’s Ditch) is a tributary of the Oradell Reservoir and is experiencing severe erosion which threatens to undermine the existing trail which travels alongside of it.
Plans to slow down the rate of erosion include the construction of dams made out of small boulders, reshaping the existing ditch and/or planting native trees and shrubs to absorb some of the runoff. The ditch trail features the final three markers on the nature trail which correspond to the guide found at the kiosk. The last three markers discuss the role of American Beech in the eastern deciduous forest, conditions in which moss thrives and information regarding Cinnamon and Royal Fern.
- Sugar Maple
- American Beech
- Tulip Poplar
- White Ash
- Black Cherry
- American Elm
- White Pine
- Pin Oak
- American Sycamore
- Black Walnut
Spicebush, which is found throughout the preserve, is the dominant native forest understory species. Spicebush leaves are the major source of food for the Spicebush Swallowtail Butterfly. Other common native shrubs present in the Emerson Woods Preserve are Swamp Dewberry (produces juicy black berries which are a source of food for small mammals and birds) and Northern Arrowwood (produces bluish-black berries which are eaten by small mammals and birds). Native woodland plants include Jack-in-the-Pulpit, Wood Nettle, Pokeweed, Skunk Cabbage, Jewelweed, Spring Beauty, Trout Lily and others. Common ferns of the Emerson Woods Preserve include New York, Sensitive, Cinnamon, Royal, Lady and Christmas.
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The preserve features a wide array of wildlife including:
- White-tail Deer
- Eastern Gray Squirrel
- Wild Turkey
- Northern Cardinal
- White-Breasted Nuthatch
- Eastern Garter Snake
- Spring Peeper
- Northern Flicker
- Green Frog
- Eastern Cottontail
- Red Fox
- Eastern Chipmunk
- Black-Capped Chickadee
- Wood Duck
- Eastern Towhee
- Downy Woodpecker
- Red-Tailed Hawk
(Check out recent bird sightings on the Emerson Woods E-Bird Hotspot)!
The Emerson Woods Preserve are accessible from off of Main Street in Emerson or Lakeview Drive. Ample parking is available on Summer Street. Be sure to check out Bergen SWAN if you wish to participate in nature walks, community clean-ups and educational events in Emerson Woods.
Feel free to e-mail NJUrbanForest at NJUrbanForest@gmail.com with any comments, memories or suggestion! Thank you and have fun exploring!
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