Madison NJ calls for new talks to preserve Drew Forest

Madison Mayor Robert Conley is once again calling on Drew University officials to meet with him to discuss the preservation of the environmentally sensitive Drew Forest sitting between the campus and residential neighborhoods in the borough.

Drew and Madison have been at odds over the 53-acre property since the school announced its interest in selling it to developers last year. Residents of neighborhoods bordering the property on the south end of the campus and other environmental advocates have formed a non-profit group, Friends of the Drew Forest, which circulated a petition supporting preservation that has accumulated more than 14,000 signatures.

Speaking Monday at the Madison Council meeting, Conley said he wants to work with Drew to prepare a Morris County Open Space Grant application to buy the land and prevent development there. The deadline for applications is June.

“A key requirement for the application is control of the property, such as a contract purchase agreement,” Conley said. “The university officials have publicly stated that they are committed to saving the forest, so I am optimistic that come next year’s reorganizational meeting in early January, the Friends of the Drew Forest will be having a song of celebration. I’m looking forward to that.”

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The conflict escalated into a court battle last year when Drew attorneys argued at a hearing in August before Judge Stephan Hansbury in state Superior Court that Madison’s agreement with the non-profit Fair Share Housing Center to build 347 affordable housing units should be recalculated to include the Drew Forest property. Madison’s failure to do so effectively lowered the value of the land on the commercial market, they said.

Hansbury partially granted the school’s motion to intervene in its home borough’s negotiated settlement with the state to build new affordable housing. He also ordered the university to produce a survey that identified the specific portions of the 53-acre forest and 63 total acres of vacant land in question.

Thursday, Drew officials responded with a statement that “We have been in settlement discussions with Madison as we attempt to create a win-win result for the University and our host community.”

Conley’s remarks also referenced a video posted by environmentalist Douglas Tallamy.

The southern gate to the campus of Drew University off Glenwild Road in Madison, which borders the 53-acre Drew Forest Reserve

“Drew Forest is an exceptional example of a publicly accessible homegrown national park,” he says in the video. “It’s stunning how Drew University, US Fish and Wildlife, local garden clubs and private individuals came together 14 years ago to transform an unhealthy forest into a regionally important biodiversity hotspot.”

Drew’s website describes its forest preserve as “a natural laboratory for student research, ecology classes and ecological restoration” with trails open to the public.”

“It’s extremely important” Tallamy said, “that all parties come together to preserve the Drew Forest.”

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