Lisa P. Jackson, (acting) commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Protection, got a first-hand look Thursday at embattled Petty's Island.
She toured the island for about two hours, in the process launching a review of the state's controversial rejection of CITGO's offer to donate the island as a nature preserve.
She was joined by Jay Watson, her deputy commissioner in charge of land acquisition, parks and wildlife conservation programs, and Adam Zellner, deputy commissioner for policy and legislative affairs.
A DEP spokeswoman said Jackson felt the best way to understand the ongoing controversy over whether to preserve or develop the Delaware River island was to see it for herself. Environmentalists want the land protected as a nature reserve. The township has chosen a developer to build homes, a golf course and retail shops on the island.
"This is the beginning of a total re-evaluation of all the issues surrounding Petty's Island," said DEP spokeswoman Elaine Makatura.
Environmentalists argue a September 2004 lands trust vote rejecting the offer was tainted by pressure on former DEP Commissioner Bradley M. Campbell from Camden County Democratic power broker George E. Norcross III, Pennsauken officials, and the project's developer, Cherokee Investment Partners of Raleigh, N.C.
Gibbstown resident Elmer Clegg is the state's official nest watcher for a pair of bald eagles that once nested on the island and are at the symbolic heart of the controversy.
They started nesting on the mainland after a surrogate chick the state placed in the nest fell and died. Cherokee and its former birding consultant, Thomas Cullen, face civil charges in Superior Court for causing disturbances that led to the chick's death.
Clegg said he happened to be observing the eagles as they were building a second nest on the mainland Thursday morning when Jackson's group stopped on the narrow bridge to the island.
Jackson, he said, spent four or five minutes looking through his sitting scope at one of the eagles, perched on a tree across a cove.
"She was really quite impressed," Clegg said. "She said, "Oh, wow.' I said to myself, "That's a good sign.'
"I'm hoping it's a good sign."
The township of Pennsauken, however, still wants to move forward with developing the island. They have this snazzy web site with their side of the Citgo "vague ploy" to donate the island for wildlife preservation. Environmental groups, such as the Sierra Club, are backing the donation.
I appreciate that now-Commissioner Jackson took the time to go visit the site, following through on her promise to the State Senate Judiciary committee that she would view the situation with a fresh perspective. Petty's island is an example of the environmental issues faced by most of the state- the balance of development with conservation, corporate environmental clean-up, and financial responsibility for all of it.
(Part of a continuing series examining some of the issues surrounding Petty's Island. Prior posts here and here.)