MICHELE S. BYERS / NJ CONSERVATION FOUNDATION – Imagine a 500-acre island oasis for birds and wildlife, and an urban nature education center, in the Delaware River between Camden and Philadelphia.
Fifteen years ago, an improbable alliance formed. Petty’s Island’s owner, the CITGO Petroleum Corporation, teamed up with environmentalists from across New Jersey and local urban residents to preserve the island.
The battle to preserve Petty’s Island is captured in “500 Acres of Controversy: Saving Petty’s Island,” a new documentary to be premiered at Princeton Environmental Film Festival on Sunday, April 15, at 1:15 p.m. at the Princeton Library.
“It’s really a very nice success story,” said Michael Catania, chairman of the New Jersey Natural Lands Trust, which commissioned the film. “I think Petty’s Island will rank right up there with Liberty State Park and Central Park as iconic open space.”
Despite being less than a mile from millions of people, Petty’s Island was a place few people had heard of and even fewer had visited. Once a Native American hunting ground, the island was an industrial site for most of the 20th century and off-limits to the public.
In 2003, CITGO decided to close its facility and sell Petty’s Island. Cherokee, a housing developer, proposed a billion-dollar project with views of the Philadelphia skyline. Some eagerly anticipated the tax dollars the project would bring in.
Then something unexpected happened. A pair of bald eagles, an endangered species, was discovered nesting on Petty’s Island. This was a first for Camden County.
“When you have bald eagles nesting in a place, they’re entitled to a certain level of protection with a perimeter around the nest,” explained Catania. CITGO officials then shifted gears and offered to donate the entire island to the New Jersey Natural Lands Trust as a nature preserve.
The free island was turned down when the McGreevey administration, which had several voting representatives on the Trust, refused the donation.
But the story didn’t end there. Scandal erupted after a baby bald eagle was found mortally injured on the ground on Petty’s Island … and a developer’s consultant was accused. Public opinion turned against the development.
More pressure for preserving Petty’s Island came from local residents who would have been displaced by plans to bulldoze thousands of Camden homes in the Cramer Hill neighborhood and redevelop the waterfront facing Petty’s Island.
By 2009, plans to develop Petty’s Island had unraveled. The New Jersey Natural Lands Trust asked CITGO if its donation offer was still good — and the corporation said yes. This time, the Corzine administration directed its representatives to join with the environmental community and support the donation.
Today, Petty’s Island is in the midst of an amazing transformation from a marine terminal and oil storage facility into a public nature preserve.
“500 Acres of Controversy” is one of a handful of New Jersey-centered films chosen for the Princeton Environmental Film Festival, which runs from April 8 through 15.
Also being screened is “Saving the Great Swamp” on Thursday, April 12, another tale of a preservation victory against great odds. Other NJ films include “The Oyster Farmers,” which centers on coastal life in Barnegat Bay; “Riverkeeper,” a portrait of Captain Bill Sheehan, founder of the Hackensack Riverkeeper network; and “Creature Show: Bobcats,” a look at one of the state’s most rare and elusive species.
Michele S. Byers is executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation.