Taking a big, planet-saving step in the right direction can be treacherous, paradoxical. Sometimes, you risk doing a very bad thing in the process of trying to achieve a very good thing.
Such is the case with Six Flags Great Adventure, a theme park complex located an hour northeast of Philadelphia in Ocean County, New Jersey, that can soon claim bragging rights as the world’s first solar-powered theme park. When including an adjacent 350-acre drive-through safari, Great Adventure ranks as the second largest theme park in the world at 510 acres — only Disney’s Animal Kingdom outside of Orlando is bigger.
So it was huge when Texas-headquartered Six Flags unveiled plans to build the enormous solar farm on park-owned land in 2015. The company’s mission to power the park with clean energy was heralded as a smart and potentially game-changing move within the relatively renewables-lite theme park industry. And at 92 acres, Great Adventure’s solar farm would have been the largest in the Garden State to boot. Big doings, and all to help dramatically shrink the carbon footprint of a major regional attraction visited by over 3 million coaster-loving guests annually.
Then the lawsuits started to roll in.
The issue? To construct the 23-megawatt solar power plant, Six Flags and project developer KDC Solar would have needed to clear-cut over 18,000 trees within a sensitive — but non-protected, as it’s located on Six Flags-owned land — coastal forest habitat linked to the Pinelands National Reserve.
Good on paper, not-so-good in reality
Sprawling across 1.1 million acres and designated as a UNESCO biosphere reserve, the Pinelands — located within the pine barrens ecoregion and home to one of America’s most notorious folkloric beasts — is by far the largest swath of open land in New Jersey and the Mid-Atlantic region. For Six Flags, clearing 90 acres of coastal forest probably seemed like just a drop in the bucket.
Following the announcement, Six Flags spokesperson Kristin Siebeneicher explained that most of the trees were in poor condition anyway and that 25,000 trees — significantly more than the number cut — would be replanted. Speaking to the Asbury Park Press, Councilman Kenneth Bressi called the project a “win-win” for Six Flags and the local township.
But the Pinelands are a special and fiercely guarded place. For local environmental groups, clearing forests to make way for a solar farm wasn’t so much a rub but a total nonstarter. To block the project’s progress, a coalition of six local environmental groups — they include the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club, New Jersey Conservation Foundation, Save Barnegat Bay, Environment New Jersey, Clean Water Action and the Crosswicks-Doctor Creek Watershed Association — took Six Flags, KDC Solar and Jackson Township to court.
The concerns raised by the coalition were numerous. For starters, the project would displace a variety of endangered and protected wildlife species, along with roughly 1,500 common wildlife species. It would destroy an area that acted as a sort of sylvan force field, buffering surrounding residential areas from air, water and noise pollution generated at the park. It would add to stormwater runoff. And, according to those rallying against the project, the loss of trees and construction noise would adversely impact the exotic animals within the nearby safari park. Despite the good intentions of Six Flags, the solar farm would, at the end of the day, be woefully disruptive.
Never overlook the parking lot …
Now, three years later, the solar farm is still very much happening. Kingda Ka, Nitro and Great Adventure’s other heave-inducing thrill rides will be powered by the sun by the end of 2019 if construction estimates hold true.
But thanks to the doggedness of the environmental groups and a willingness to make concessions on the part of Six Flags and KDC Solar, the original facility will be more than halved to 40 acres. Joining the ground-mounted photovoltaic panels will be solar carports that extend over some of the complex’s sizable outdoor parking lots, making good secondary use of once-forested land that was paved over long ago. The concept for the solar parking lot was first proposed by the opposing coalition, an idea that Six Flags initially dismissed.
And as reported by NJ.com, the remaining 52 acres of land that will not be part of the downsized solar farm will join a 213-acre parcel of forest that Six Flags pledges to deed into conservancy. That protected swath of invaluable open space will neighbor the 12,000-acre Colliers Mills Wildlife Management Area as well as the much smaller Francis Mills Conservation Area. If for some reason the solar farm plans fall through, those 40 acres will automatically become part of a larger conservation area.
“This is no small thing,” an unnamed source tells NJ.com. “That’s basically 253 acres that will be returned to pinelands habitat no matter what happens.”
A happy ending for a ‘hard-won battle’
While 40 acres of clear-cut forest might still be a tough pill to swallow for some opponents of the project, many contend that the settlement not only benefits Jackson Township and Great Adventure, but also local wildlife and those who strive to protect it.
As Janet Tauro, New Jersey Board Chair for plaintiff Clean Water Action, writes in an editorial for the Asbury Park Press, the three-year legal process was a “hard-won battle” that could have never reached a conclusion without all parties working together in a productive manner. Regarding the 40 acres that will still be cleared to make way for ground-mounted panels, she warns that other large companies “should not take this agreement as an invitation to use forest for solar.”
Tauro also notes that the issue of wildlife habitats being destroyed to make way for large-scale renewable energy projects isn’t unique to Central New Jersey. (Well, South Jersey depending on whom you ask.)
The coalition from the start praised the intent behind the solar plan to make climate change a focus of management and business practice, but not at the expense of the forest and surrounding environment. This conundrum of combating climate change through renewable energy to get away from carbon-emitting fossil fuels, and the land mass that large-scale solar facilities demand, is not confined to Great Adventure.
Great Adventure’s former CEO, Neil Thurman, deserves credit for coming to the table and listening to the environmental impacts of the original plan. An agreement could not have been reached without that willingness to listen, ultimately culminating in the bulk of the project being located in parking lots, further reducing greenhouse gas pollution by utilizing solar canopies that will cool the parking lots’ blacktop.
Going forward, this could be a model for the business community to adopt. As we continue on a path to transition to a renewable energy future, business and industry will benefit from engagement with the environmental community.
NJ.com’s anonymous source similarly extended praise to Six Flags: “You have to give them credit. They could have dragged it out in litigation, but I think they wanted to come up with a fair solution.” (The defendants had a major victory in June when Superior Court Judge Marlene Lynch Ford gave them the green light to proceed with the solar project, a ruling Doug O’Malley of Environment New Jersey called “a massive error of the courts.”)
As for Six Flags, which purchased Great Adventure in the late 1970s from New York restauranteur Warner LeRoy of Tavern on the Green fame, the theme park operator is patting itself on the back for reaching an agreement that appeases conservationists while pushing its renewable energy goals. In a press release announcing the imminent kick-off on construction of the project, the company touts its conservation track record and existing environmental initiatives at Great Adventure. (A not-too-shabby 60 percent of all waste generated annually within the park is recycled.)
“This is a proud day for our company. This project represents a giant step toward becoming a net-zero carbon facility,” Six Flags Great Adventure Park President John Winkler said. “We are pleased that we were able to come to a satisfactory agreement with all parties involved. Clean energy is right for the environment and our future, and we look forward to decades of environmental stewardship with our partner, KDC Solar.”
The outcome of this legal battle, which raised plenty of ire back in 2015 when it pitted a group of grassroots local activists against a major corporation, is no doubt refreshing at a time when headlines are dominated by rule bending, name calling and obstructionism. See what happens when two groups, even when entrenched in a heated dispute, find common ground and act together toward the greater good?