Senate President Stephen Sweeney
Deputy Speaker John Burzichelli
Assemblyman Adam Taliaferro

‘It’s not over,’ owners of threatened cabins say after DEP chief visits them by boat

South Jersey Times – It was far from an ideal day to be out on the water, but that’s exactly where Catherine McCabe was early Thursday afternoon.

The acting New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection commissioner, accompanied by a handful of top state and local officials by boat, got a first-hand look at some of the tiny marsh cabins the state has threatened with demolition.

McCabe said this would be a fact-finding mission.

“It’s always important to me to see what is happening on the ground with people, especially when I hear that people care so very much about an issue, there must be a good reason for that,” said McCabe after the hour and 45 minute boat tour on the raw afternoon. ” … I always like to come and see the situation myself and hear what people say before making a decision about anything.

Four of the cabins, on state-owned land where just hours away from being razed in January when McCabe, as incoming DEP commissioner, ordered a halt to the demolition so the issue could be studied.

Another four cabins, two of which McCabe visited Thursday, are on private property, but in the heart of the marshland and in violation of environmental rules, the state says.

“I wanted Acting Commissioner McCabe to get a first-hand view of the cabins so that she can understand the perspective of the owners and the community who believe strongly they should be preserved,” said state Senate President Stephen Sweeney before the tour. “They should be given a fair opportunity to make their case to the decision-makers.”

McCabe, and the group accompanying her, left the dock at Hancocks Bridge in four boats under gray skies, making their way down Alloways Creek and into the heart of the thousands of acres of marshland where the cabins are located. Soon a steady, cold rain began pelting the area and the wind kicked up. Both the air and water tempeartures were only in the mid 40s.

But the weather didn’t stop her. McCabe came prepared, she said, and as the drops began to fall she donned her rain gear and kept going in the mostly-open boat.
It was a citizen complaint tip to the DEP in January 2017 that began a series of events that drew inspectors to the four cabins on the state-owned Mad Horse Creek Wildlife Management Area and the four on adjacent private marshland that covers thousands of acres between the village of Hancocks Bridge and the Delaware River.

The DEP maintains it never knew the cabins existed before that.

These remaining structures are some of the last survivors of what were once scores of the tiny buildings along the tributaries leading to the Delaware River and Delaware Bay.

Photographs from the early 1900s show them lined up along the banks of the creeks. At that time they were used by those who made their living off the marshland and water by fishing, trapping and hunting.

As times changed, most of the cabins were abandoned or fell into disrepair or were destroyed by eroding stream banks or marsh fires. Today, those cabins that remain are used by families — some of whom have owned them for generations — and sportsmen or recreational boaters who pass by and need a refuge from storms or just a respite from their travels.

Sweeney, along with Assemblymen John Burzichelli and Adam Taliaferro, have sponsored legislation which would allow the cabins to stay. The measure still needs legislative approval and Gov. Phil Murphy to sign the bill.

“We have a lot of work to do,” Sweeney said after the tour. “The commissioner showed us she understands the importance of these cabins. We all want to do the right thing. Hopefully we can.”

“Removing or destroying these cabins would be like taking a piece of history and ripping the page out of the book,” Burzichelli said.

Once word got out about the possible loss of the cabins, citizens in Salem County mobilized. More than 2,700 people signed petitions urging the state to keep the cabins and some 450 “Save The Cabins” signs have popped up in Salem, Cumberland and Gloucester counties.

Salem County Freeholder Director Melissa DeCastro, who was on the tour, called the cabins “part of a way of life that is important to the greater community.”
McCabe also got to meet some of the cabin owners.

“It seemed positive,” said Butch Bradbury of the visit. He said he was “hopeful” his cabin on Hope Creek would be saved.

Larry McKelvey who also has a cabin on Hope Creek was more cautious.

“It’s not over,” he said as he stood in the rain at the boat ramp. “They have stopped the demolition of the cabins, but they could go back to it any time.”

When a decision could be made by the DEP on the fate of the cabins and what that would be remains unclear.

“We have a lot of things to think about,” McCabe said. “We have a lot of factors to consider.”

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